Friday, February 15, 2013

Environmental Activism Works

Tar sands protest 2011 (photo credit: Sen. Sanders)
by Nick Cunningham

Polls suggest that a sizable majority of the American people support action on climate change. A recent poll from Duke University shows that 64% of Americans favor regulating greenhouse gases from power plants, factories, and cars, and also requiring utilities to generate power from clean energy.

Yet, public opinion has done little to shift the needle on Capitol Hill. Perhaps this is because members of Congress do not feel the heat on climate change. Perhaps it’s because they do not see people in the streets protesting.

If 2/3 of the public want action on climate change, why aren’t they in the streets? Well, I presume that the many of those people would like to reduce greenhouse gases, but don’t feel passionate enough about it to do something. After all, it takes effort to call up your representative, or attend a local meeting to voice an opinion, or attend a rally.

But, I do think that many more people would do such things if they felt that it could make a difference. If they felt that their voices were being heard, and their opinions affected public policy, they might take action.
A few recent conflicts that pitted conservationists against “development” offer evidence that, in fact, environmental activism can be remarkably successful.

The first is a case in Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency under the Department of Interior that manages the nation’s public lands, and it often needs to decide whether or not to open up undeveloped land for oil and gas exploration. Recently, BLM decided to sell leases near Paonia, Colorado, a small town in the North Fork Valley full of organic farms, vineyards, as well as parks and outdoorsy-type businesses.

The decision to issue leases for oil and gas development sparked an uproar (good article from The New York Times.)  Local residents were enraged at the decision, fearing pollution from oil and gas rigs would damage their livelihoods.

Residents packed local meetings. Here’s the NYT on the scene:

"About 200 residents sat on the floor, lined the walls and spilled into the hallway, jeering and hooting as officials insisted — sometimes patiently, sometimes brusquely — that hydraulic fracturing was safe, and that there would be little environmental impact on the valley. They applauded as town council members pressed federal officials on drilling’s effect on the town’s air, water and economy — eliciting responses that were as unsatisfactory to the crowd as a bushel of mealy peaches.

'I can’t guarantee you there won’t be a spill,' Lonny Bagley, the land management agency’s deputy state director for energy and minerals, told the audience. 'I can’t guarantee there won’t be a blowout.'"

The public pressure worked. A few days later, BLM announced that it was removing the tracts of land from the lease sale, citing public opposition. The land wouldn’t be used for fossil fuel development.

Another example of environmental activism succeeding in recent weeks is the announcement by Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest paper companies in the world, that it would no longer clear cut forests for paper products.

clear cutting (photo credit: NOAA)
Clear cutting forest, particularly in Indonesia’s vast rainforests, is a destructive practice. Deforestation accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than cutting forests that are centuries old and full of rich biodiversity, a much more sustainable practice to sourcing timber for paper products is from tree plantations. Fast growing trees can be planted on land that is already degraded, relieving pressure on primary forests. Moreover, once the trees are cut, there isn’t a net effect on the climate, since the trees absorbed carbon while they were growing.
Asia Pulp and Paper apparently felt compelled to reform its practices after intense pressure from environmental groups like Greenpeace. Here is New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin on Greenpeace’s achievement. The decision is a huge win for global forests and the climate.

Environmental activism also seemingly played a pivotal role in forcing President Obama to delay the Keystone XL pipeline a year and a half ago. In November 2011, Obama decided to push the decision until after the Presidential election under pressure from the public (which is why the decision is now expected soon). Before groups like made Keystone XL a monumental environmental cause, the project looked destined for approval.

This Sunday’s climate rally offers the opportunity for environmental activists – as well as a broad coalition of public health specialists, national security hawks, civil rights groups, and many more – to demonstrate their passion for climate action. As recent campaigns demonstrate, environmental activism, when strong enough, works.

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