Going Green is Going Nowhere


green n. a. Lacking sophistication or worldly experience; naive. b. Easily duped or deceived; gullible.

Forgoing Metro, I rode by bike (recently christened "Bertha" by my friend David) to the office yesterday for the first time this year. The traffic in Bethesda was worse than I remembered it, clogging up side streets. The river of cars filled with solo drivers on Little Falls Parkway gushed through traffic lights while I waited to cross. "Why are these people in cars?" I asked myself.

Were these folks magically whisked to the Netherlands, would they simply buy more cars on their arrival because they like them so much? I think a significant portion of them wouldn't. And not because they're inspired to "go green" by the forward-thinking Dutch, but because the system there is designed for bicycles.

The Dutch had to push hard for this system change, and it had only tangential connection to environmentalism: mostly they got fed up with the number of kids dying in car accidents and turned out en masse on city streets to protest the situation. That and cheap gas disappeared. Leaders responded by building bicycle infrastructure and, voila, cycling shot up. Today, about 30% of the country's population gets around exclusively by bicycle. In the US? 2%.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," [International urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University, Ralph] Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

I bring up this story because an Atlantic Cities article I recently posted on the Citizens Climate Lobby Facebook page sparked a debate about the efficacy of individual vs. collective action. That article, Maggie Koerth-Baker's "Why Your 'Green Lifestyle' Choices Don't Really Matter" argues that all the recycled paper towels and bamboo floors in the country don't hold a candle to changing policy when it comes to building a better world.

I'm with Maggie on this one. And so is Annie Leonard, who makes the same point in her video The Story of Change. Going green, she says, is "like trying to swim upstream when the current is pushing us all the other way".


Many commenters on our Facebook wall took issue with this perspective:

If people do not make green lifestyle choices, those with the political power to make infrastructure changes will not see them as necessary. 

There is very little chance of systems change being implemented without a large push from what is now a "lifestyle" sector. 

It is an ill-conceived logic to decry these choices as ineffective. I think "lifestyle choices" are a powerful tool to point up to others what choices they have made without considering the alternatives. 

Articles with these kinds of titles assist in making people think doing nothing is ok. It's not. We all have to chip in.

I get the idea of personal responsibility, sure. I get around without a car. My roommates and I recycle and buy renewable energy credits for our electricity. But our culture stresses the personal responsibility aspect of environmentalism way too much, to the detriment of much more effective solutions. Lifestyle changes are the only way most people in the US know how to engage in change, and companies comfortable with the status quo are happy to encourage that. But it's a road to ruin, as the absence of strong chemical regulations shows:

Brock noted that she does everything in her power to give her kids a healthy future. However, as she has learned, what a parent can do may not be enough when product labels don't list every chemical ingredient, or when a chemical's safety remains untested. In order to uncover what chemicals were triggering rashes and breathing troubles in her daughters, for example, Brock said she spent a long time "playing detective" with what they were eating and applying to their hair and skin.

In addition to rejecting the "lifestyle" argument by pushing for policy change, scrapping the "green" label might be a good idea too. Witness students involved in the fossil fuel divestment campaign who've understandably become irritated by greenwashing and by being boxed into an esoteric interest group:

Photo: Fossil Free
Environmentalism may have been hijacked by our consumer culture, but maybe it's a blessing in disguise. We've been given the opportunity to redefine ourselves. I hope we'll look around at our neighbors who don't define themselves as "green", link arms, and storm the gates together.

Congress: A Fool's Errand?


Last week I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Earth Days at the National Archives (you too can watch the whole thing here). I was particularly eager to hear Denis Hayes introduce the film. He was coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and has recently established the “greenest commercial building in the world” in Seattle, the Bullitt Center.

In the film we see Hayes and others help build a movement that had republicans in Congress and the administration clamoring over each other to call themselves “environmentalists”. The 1970s saw a deluge of environmental laws signed into law. Not only the Clean Air and Water Acts, but the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund program. To anyone familiar with today’s political gridlock, the speed of progress at the time is pretty astounding.

Obviously much has changed in politics and public opinion since that time. In the 2011 presidential primaries, each Republican candidate proclaimed in turn how they would strangle the EPA’s authority if elected. It’s helpful to remember that it was a Republican who established the EPA. In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon said:
We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard. 
This requires comprehensive new regulations. It also requires that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.
In light of these changes and Hayes’ decades of involvement in the movement, I asked him what advice he’d give to today’s environmentalist. His response? Abandon the federal government (particularly Congress) and focus on local and regional action.

Ugh.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this... David Roberts, who quickly (and brilliantly) defended the 40,000+ marchers at the Forward on Climate Rally from the “Very Serious People” (VSP) on the bloggy sidelines himself becomes a VSP when it comes to climate legislation: “The dream of comprehensive national legislation must be put aside for now,” he said in a January 2013 post.

Similar responses abound when I tell people I’m in a group that organizes citizens to lobby Congress on climate change. It’s a simple math problem: the support is just not there, corporate influence is too strong, politicians are too dirty, and anyone foolish enough to focus on Congress is wasting her time.

I imagine part of this reaction comes from the impression that regular citizens don’t have real access to their representatives. While corporations and think tanks horse-trade behind the scenes, regular folks are condemned to signing angry petitions or shaking their fists on the Capitol steps. Or at best, trying to vote the worst politicians out every two years.

My conception of political engagement changed when I joined Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) in 2011. Since then I’ve participated in numerous meetings with staffers and legislators of both political parties, flanked by scientists, business owners, religious leaders, students, writers and others who are moving and savvy advocates for smart climate legislation.

It’s surprisingly easy to set up a meeting with the staffers responsible for drafting environmental/energy legislation and often the representatives themselves. I’ve learned that constituents are taken seriously; that it’s possible to have productive and engaging discussions with the most unlikely people, even staffers from deepest coal country. In terms of face-time, our representatives are more accessible than you might imagine.

In 2012, CCL volunteers from around the country met with 303 congressional offices in one week. This summer, they’re planning to meet with all 536 of them. For an army of volunteers organized by a staff you can count on one hand operating with minimal resources, that’s pretty impressive. And this contact happens in districts around the country, year-round.

Of course, access isn't influence. To be honest, I don’t expect much. I know about voting records and campaign donations. I’ve listened to representatives extol outlandish denier arguments and actively target climate solutions.

And yet I continue trudging up to Capitol Hill and organizing volunteers. Why, for godssake? Why don’t I spend my precious Metrorail money on cupcakes instead? Why haven’t the doubters chipped away at my resolve yet?

Well, there’s the fact that impactful climate action without Congress is impossible, according to the World Resources Institute. No amount of badgering Obama to utilize existing authority is going to get us the carbon reductions we need.

Secondly, we can’t go to international climate negotiations with a patchwork of regional policies and expect other countries to meet our own demands or pass ambitious policies of their own. On the international stage, federal policy carries the most weight. It carries the most weight for our financial system and utility companies too.

But mostly, we can’t use the state of Congress as an excuse for silence. There are lots of tools in the climate action toolbox. Building a sustainable city is one. Practicing civil disobedience is one. Organizing a rally is one. And lobbying Congress is one too. Abandoning this essential piece of active citizenship is more folly than believing we might actually change things. Besides, immovable objects might not be as immovable as we think.

Requiem for Tulip Poplars

Back in 2010, I videotaped the forest across the street from my then-apartment complex being razed to build condos. I just recently got around to editing the footage:

From the piece I wrote for the Piedmont Virginian:

The public record on the land contained the long list of government agencies that had to sign off on the development: fire marshals and storm water specialists, the department of transportation, wastewater planners. There was no boogey man I could blame – no rogue developer that had snuck into the forest in the middle of the night to pull a sneak attack on nature. A host of people had made the decision collectively over many years, including the urban forester who emailed me. The result, seemingly so sudden, was the result of careful, albeit dispassionate, planning.

According to the NRDC, "Scientists at the US Forest Service and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies predict that urban and developed land areas in the US will increase 41 percent by 2060. Forested areas will be most impacted by this expansion, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 million acres in the lower 48 states."

What's Next for Blue-Green Relations?

New York’s Consolidated Edison is facing both workforce cuts and demands on infrastructure from stronger storms. Climate change adaptation could add jobs. (photo: Bloomberg)
This is the second entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions. 

It was 1967. United Auto Workers executive board member Olga Madar went to Congress on behalf of her union and asked the federal government to curb air pollution by putting tighter emissions regulations on the auto industry. The testimony she gave could have easily come from any major environmental group at the time:

"We make little progress when we find that the gains in better health are negated when the worker leaves the plant and finds his community's living environment polluted…” she said. “[There is] an air and water pollution problem of such magnitude that it has caused some of our leading social thinkers and scientists to conclude that we are in the midst of a struggle of life and death."

Such strident defense of environmental issues was not unusual among the era’s leading labor leaders. From UAW President Walter Reuther to AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty, the 1960s and early 70s saw a barrage of union officials making the connection between workers’ rights and environmental activism.

Today, however, one is more likely to hear about an insurmountable rift between environmentalists and unions in the US.

Obama’s decision on whether or not to permit Keystone XL, for example, was seen as a difficult choice because, as Sheldon Alberts of Canada’s National Post wrote, “he risks alienating elements of his own political base no matter what decision he makes.” “Environment vs. jobs” had become so pervasive that observers were now slipping in proxies: “environmentalists vs. labor”.

There was ample evidence for this, of course. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers all expressed support for the pipeline. The largest contingent of pipeline supporters at the final State Department hearing in October 2011 was members of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Environmentalists pointed to alliances with the Transport Workers Union of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union on the matter, but coalition-building between enviros and labor has been happening elsewhere too.

Days after that State Department hearing, environmentalists were meeting with oil workers with Louisiana’s United Steelworkers District 13 to discuss the “future of oil”.

“It wasn’t as confrontational as I would have expected,” said Rob McCulloch, Legislative Advocate for Transportation and Transit Issues at the BlueGreen Alliance, the organization that sponsored the event. Both sides saw common ground in fighting for workers’ health and against the replacement of their jobs by contract workers.

The BlueGreen Alliance has been putting together such meetings at the local level for years and McCulloch said it’s a great way to break the ice, build relationships and trust and ultimately create unassailable coalitions that can win on policy issues. When he visits Congress, “they pay more attention because we’re not a special interest group. We’re representing their constituents,” he said. Speaking for environmental groups or labor alone just doesn’t carry as much weight with lawmakers.

Still, there’s potential that remains untapped. After the failures of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010, the limits of their partnership, at least on the federal level, became apparent.

There are also some issues that the two sides simply won’t see eye-to-eye on. Coal mining in Appalachia, for instance (save for mountaintop removal). McCulloch said it’s easier to start with the things you agree on to get comfortable working with each other.

Jenny Brown of Labor Notes recently wrote about the ways that 2012’s climate change impacts have strengthened the Blue-Green relationship:

The 185,000-member National Nurses Union came out against the [KXL] pipeline in early February [2013], joining the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union.
“It’s easy for us to take this position,” said Jill Furillo of the 37,000-member New York State Nurses Association. “Our members are on the front lines of seeing the effects of the environmental crisis.”
After Hurricane Sandy, New York nurses not only took care of those injured in the storm, they also evacuated patients from hospitals crippled by loss of electricity, carrying critically ill patients down dark stairwells when rising floodwaters wrecked elevators and backup generators.

In 2010, Grist’s David Roberts wrote that ‘Environmentalism’ can never address climate change and the argument still stands. Climate change will impact every sector of society and we can only build a movement if a broad constituency is embraced. A strong union presence at tomorrow’s Forward on Climate rally (the largest in US history) indicates this growth may be occurring.

Hopeful Cynics to Watch

Two of my friends are producing quality, enlightening stuff on policy and aren't getting the audience they deserve, so please subscribe, bookmark, download... you know, do what you have to do:

The Antidiluvian (blog): Sieren runs her own consulting business on carbon markets, speaks Mandarin and runs circles around anyone who engages her in a conversation about climate policy. I've witnessed her publicly shaming a high-level Obama administration official about climate change by quoting his own obscure economic papers in front of a room full of wonks. You want this woman on your team, in other words. She's recently started this blog that scrutinizes the latest coverage of climate change.

Congressional Dish (podcast): I met Jen Briney while standing in cuffs at the Anacostia Station waiting for processing after getting arrested in front of the White House in 2011. Jen is a Congressional junkie. A "C-SPAN Geek". She hosts an entertaining (yes) podcast about Congress (and corporate influence) full of details all the news shows fail to mention, like all the crazy stuff hidden inside mundane-sounding bills. Her podcast is generous with the sarcasm, but it's grounded in a underlying faith in democracy's potential.

Climate Change in Pictures 2012

For those of us in the US, there was no shortage of crazy climate-fueled weather stories in 2012: droughts and heatwaves, wildfires, Sandy, a melting Arctic. But like most people, I have a hard time remembering the deluge of records and events that, together, tell the story of climate change.

In the summer, I started a Pinterest page devoted to documenting climate impacts at the state level, made up of news articles, reports, blogs posts, etc. These stories and images illustrate how climate change is already impacting people and wildlife in every part of the country. Here are those that stood out this year, by region:

A WWII ship uncovered by a drought-impacted Mississippi River in December 2012 (TeamSaintLouis/Flickr)
Midwest: The drought of 2012, the worst in decades, has crippled the "Mighty Mississippi" River: it dropped 12 feet below normal in some areas, exposing sunken steamboats on the river bottom and threatening to shut down one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The drought also did a number to farmers, prompting the Department of Agriculture to declare over half the country a disaster zone and lowering the crop yield forecast multiple times. In July, stories of withered harvests were flying from farmers across the breadbasket: from corn in Illinois and wheat in North Dakota to oats in Wisconsin. In Iowa, 37,000 fish were found dead along the Des Moines River because the water got too hot.

A forest ravaged by pine beetles in Colorado (sandrift/Flickr)
West: Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire got the most news coverage, but damaging fires burned across the West this year. Already by August 2012, the National Interagency Fire Center had declared 2012 the worst year for wildfires in terms of acreage burned. And if fires weren't bad enough, forests in the West continue to die from pine beetle infestation caused by rising temperatures. A three-year study on the Colorado River released in December found that the watershed will be unable to support the region's needs over the next 50 years. In the Southwest, giant dust storms that shut down roads and carry a "noxious mix of fungi, heavy metals, fertilizers and stockyard fecal matter" are becoming more frequent.

Northern Florida's County Line Fire - April 2012 (NASA)
South: Rising temperatures are a threat to infrastructure. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a severe storm that knocked out power to a water treatment plant released partially-treated sewage into the James River. Researchers in both Arkansas and Texas have found fewer ducks and other birds migrating south for the winter and Texas saw its worst West Nile Virus outbreak since 1999 (its 2011 drought alone also cost the state $7 billion). Along the coast, states are bracing for the next big storm; Miami, Florida is seen as being particularly susceptible. And wildfires weren't confined to the West. A wildfire fueled by drought burned 35,000 acres in Florida's Osceola National Forest.

 Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy and fires (FEMA)
East: Images of the New York subway system and the New Jersey coastline inundated by water pushed inland by Hurricane Sandy are hard to forget. The damage, which is expected to cost NY and NJ alone at least $72 billion to address, was foreshadowed months before when a US Geological Survey report said that sea levels are rising twice as fast along the Atlantic Coast as other areas. Vermont is still recovering from 2011's Hurricane Irene which wiped out 500 miles of roadways and a state hospital there. A warming ocean is leading to problems up and down the coast from a nuclear plant in Connecticut that had to shut down in August to fish fleeing north to cooler waters.

There are hundreds of other stories like these on my Climate Impacts page, from coastal erosion in Alaska and Hawaii to ocean acidification in Oregon. Keep up-to-date with the latest stories by following me here.

And for some more quick summaries of climate impacts in 2012, see the Climate Desk's Year in Review, NRDC's This is What Global Warming Looks Like (videos), Climate Central's list of 2012 extreme weather events, and World Resources Institute's Extreme Weather Timeline.