The Trump administration, and its allies in Congress, are fighting a losing war. They continue to press forward for the development of oil, gas, coal, when the rest of the world understands the implication of that folly. Global warming is the most pressing issue for our time. Period.
The thing is governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its peoples from global warming: Spend money on trying to reduce the problem; or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes.
I witnessed first hand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.
Even the United States.
The Centers for Environmental Information says there were sixteen weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events” as the center defines them resulted in 362 deaths.
Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events.More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017 — a new U.S. annual record.”
A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”
But instead of trying to reduce the impact — and the costs of weather-related catastrophe — the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year.
“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, Counselor for Energy Policy at Interior in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”
Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”
Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?
A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”
There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.
The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.
And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”
Two serious debates in Washington right now: Climate change and taxes. These are connected. And the decisions made over the next few days and weeks will impact you and your children’s future.
The federal government is required by law to publish a climate assessment. The report is out and it’s troubling. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska.”
The National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country. This bill was required by Congress in 1990 to “understand, assess, predict and respond” to global warming. It represents the best science from across the federal government.
So how is the Congress and the Trump administration responding to the report?
Well, the White House basically said, no worries, the climate is always changing. Especially because the president and Congress are focused instead on tax cuts.
Tax policy is, of course, an important concern for tribal governments and enterprises. As Adrienne St. Clair reported for Cronkite News about a complaint from tribal leaders about not being included in the discussion. “Tribes struggle with economic growth because of things like basic federal tax law, dual taxation from state governments and budget cuts from the federal programs that serve them. They urged lawmakers to push for legislation that will help Indian Country, including increasing investment incentives and allowable tax credits,” St. Clair wrote.
And it’s not just tribes. A restructuring of federal taxes will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives in all sorts of ways.
I get tired of the debate being about “middle class” taxpayers. First of all, I (and most policy makers) don’t really know what that means any more. Most working families consider themselves middle class. And what about a young single mother trying to raise a family on $25,000 a year? In an ideal setting she would not pay any income taxes.
And the Republican proposal (that party distinction is important because there were no open hearings, or amendments, this is a Republican bill designed to win or lose on Republican votes) on the surface will save many American Indian and Alaska Native families money. The tax proposal would double the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for joint filers. That’s the amount of money you can earn sort of tax free. But the plan takes away deductions for children — so a larger family could end up paying more from the start because of the fewer deductions. (So less than half needed for the scenario of a single mother raising children.)
And that’s not all. The tax cuts for families don’t last. The Joint Committee on Taxation (the congressional agency that does the math) reports that families earning between $20,000 and $40,000 a year and between $200,000 to $500,000 would pay more in individual income taxes in 2023 and beyond. Republicans argue the tax measure would result in a million new jobs.
The total cost is not a bargain either, the tax cuts would add some $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next decade.
There is another problem for Indian Country. This tax proposal is linked to a budget measure that has already passed Congress. And that budget calls for deep spending cuts across federal programs — think sequester times two or three. And because of the process used: the Senate will need just 50 votes to implement these severe budget cuts.
Congress’ budget also opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development — and an increase in fossil fuel production (the very cause of climate change).
This is a tough moment for that. The National Climate Assessment says Alaska is already at risk. “Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, bringing widespread impacts. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking. Thawing permafrost is leading to more wildfire, and affecting infrastructure and wildlife habitat. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification will alter valuable marine fisheries.”
The Trump administration and the Republican leaders in Congress have made tax cuts their most important initiative. But the divide is similar to what we saw in the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So the outcome is uncertain at best. And, unlike health care, there might be enough votes in either the House of Representative or the Senate to tank the tax bill.
However on Fox News Sunday Speaker Paul Ryan said the House is “on track” to pass this legislation before Thanksgiving. Hashtag: #TurkeyAlert.
Let’s play with a word and an idea. “Hegemony” means the dominance of one political group over all others. That, at this moment, is the Republican brand. President Donald J. Trump, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a conservative, if not Republican, court system that will judge the law and Constitution for years to come. Hegemony.
But that word has been corrupted. Once the Greek word, “hegemon,” meant to lead. But the root word “heg” in English later became to seek, or better, to “sack,” as in ransack.
So hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era. The goal is to ransack (instead of lead). Ransack the government. Or at least the idea of government.
There is no better example of hegemony than the debate about the climate. The Republican brand from top to bottom is bent on grabbing as much natural resource loot that can be carried away in short period of time.
Except this: Hegemony is an illusion. What seems like absolute power is not.
This should be easily evident from hurricanes, fires, and other growing climate threats. You would think this is the moment for a pause (at the very least). A time out to examine what’s going on around the world and then a consideration about what should be done.
But the Republican brand, including the people who manage federal Indian programs, are willfully hostile to facts.
The World Meteorological Organization reports that natural disasters have tripled in number and the damage caused by them have increased five-fold. “Today, there is scientific proof that climate change is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the intensity and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean and by many other phenomena around the world,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres after a tour of Dominica. That island, including the Kalinago Indian Territory, was hit with successive category five hurricanes. “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree,” said Guterres, who flew by helicopter over some of the most affected areas, including Kalinago Territory.
And Puerto Rico still waits for clean water, sanitation, electricity, and basic infrastructure more than a month after its storms. Yet President Trump told reporters Thursday: “I’d say it was a 10” as he described the federal government’s response. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. You look at the number. I mean, this was — I think it was worse than Katrina.”
The governor of Puerto Rico has a different take. “Recognizing that we’re in this together – US citizens in Texas, US citizens in Florida, US citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – we need equal treatment,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “We need all the resources so we can get out of the emergency and of course the resources to rebuild.”
We know, yes, know, that climate change will leave parts of the earth uninhabitable (as we have already seen in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington and Louisiana.) How many times can you rebuild when storm after storm wipes out the life you know? How do we as a country, as a species, decide when we can no longer rebuild or stay? I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian city of Ahvaz where temperatures last summer reached 129 degrees. When will it become too hot, 130? 132? What’s the number that we just hit before we leave?
Who will be the next climate refugees?
Already in Puerto Rico that demographic transformation is occurring. “It could potentially be a very large migration to the continental United States,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University historian, immigration expert, and author on large-scale population shifts, which includes a forthcoming book on climate refugees in Scientific American. “Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess. Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates.”
Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents. Think of the magnitude of so many people, half a million or more, moving to Florida, Texas or any other state. Only then will the fecklessness of Congress be clear.
So much of the debate now only focuses on the “relocation.” But Indian Country (that’s had too many experiences with forced relocation) knows that’s only the beginning of the governmental and social costs. There will be costs ranging from demands for behavioral health to increased joblessness and poverty. The fact of hundreds of thousands of American refugees should be seen as a dangerous crisis worthy of our immediate attention.
Right now we don’t even think of Californians as climate refugees, but we should. At least 100,000 people were evacuated and nearly 6,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. And this number will grow and it ought to raise more questions about where humans can and should live.
“An increasing body of research finds that the hot and dry conditions that created the California drought were brought on in part by human-caused warming,” writes Georgina Gustin in Inside Climate News. “Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.
California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more “fuel aridity” — drier tree canopies, grasses and brush that can burn.”
Gustin writes that research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University projects more extreme drought and extreme flooding. “If global carbon emissions continue at a high level, extreme dry periods will double, the study finds—going from about five extreme dry “events” during the decade of the 1930s, to about 10 per decade by the 2070s. Extreme wet periods will increase from about 4 to about 15 over the same periods, roughly tripling.”
Again, raising the question of where people can be? Think of the tension about immigration now — and multiply that by a factor of ten or a hundred to get a sense of the scale ahead.
The failure of coal
There is another dimension to hegemony — or the lack of that in the federal government. Cities, states, tribes, corporations, and individuals, are ignoring the ransacking of the climate and moving forward with a global community focused on solutions. Markets are exercising power, too.
One example of that is the Trump administration’s failure to revive the coal industry. This was one of Donald J. Trump’s main campaign promises. The chief executive of a private coal company, Robert Murray, sums up the illogic. Just a week ago he said on the PBS’ News Hour: “We do not have a climate change problem” and 4,000 scientists told him that “mankind is not affecting climate change.” Murray’s former lobbyist has been nominated as the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Administration. Already the EPA has proposed rolling back the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the new coal regulations (or more likely, non-regulations) will still be challenged through the regulatory process and in court.
And its the markets for coal that are dictating the terms of surrender. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal consumption picked up after President Trump’s election but has started to decline again. “The recent decline in production was a result of weaker demand for steam coal, about half of which is mined in Wyoming and Montana. Production of metallurgical coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and makes up about 8% of total U.S. coal production, increased for the third consecutive quarter,” the EIA reported. “Demand for steam coal, which in the first half of 2017 made up more than 90% of U.S. coal production, is driven by coal-fired electricity generation. In recent years, coal has lost part of its electricity generation share to other fuels, but it still accounted for 30% of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the first half of 2017 compared with natural gas and renewables (including hydro) at 31% and 20%, respectively.”
And the jobs that were promised? There are now under 60,000 people employed nationwide by the coal industry. And about a thousand jobs, at most, were created since Trump took office. By comparison during that same time frame one of the fastest growing jobs, wind turbine service technician, created 4,800 new jobs at an average salary of $52,260. But the big numbers are in health care (where we should be growing jobs) an industry that created 384,000 new jobs as home health aides in the last year.
But Congress acts as if it has all the power over nature. The budget the Senate just passed would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Instead of a pause, and a rethink of climate policies, there is a hurry up and drill mentality. (Even if you love oil: Why now? Why not wait until it’s worth something? The answer is because it will never again be that valuable. The era of extraction is over.)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an interesting position. She’s fought hard for Medicaid and for the Alaska Native medical system. She deserves credit for that. But the budget she now champions could undo all of that work because the generous tax cuts will have to be eventually paid for by cutting from social programs, especially Medicaid. And what will the new costs be for more development in the Arctic in terms of subsistence hunting and fishing, potential relocation, higher health costs, and increased strain on the environment?
A group of elders from the Bering Sea recently published a report on their Ecosystem and Climate Change. “The cold, rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for coastal Yupik and Inupiaq peoples, who have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years,” the report said. “But this unique ecosystem is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to climate change … climate warming is leading to change in seasonal ice, altering the abundance, timing, and distribution of important species. The loss of sea ice is in turn causing a dramatic increase in ship traffic through these highly sensitive and important areas.”
How do we change course? How do get a pause? One way is to wait until it’s too late.
In Dominica there is a forced rethinking that followed the hurricanes. Roosevelt Skerrit, the country’s prime minister, recently put it this way: “Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total. And so we have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future. We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it. Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”
A shining example, yes, but at a cost that has been extraordinary and painful. The price of hegemony.
President Donald J. Trump announced last week that the United States was pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. That agreement includes every country in the world except Nicaragua, Syria … and now the United States.
The problems related to climate change are enormous — so the thinking goes — and the best course is a planetary response.
But nearly every government will be involved, including tribal governments.
Shortly after the president’s announcement four Native Nations announced their plans to support the Paris agreement.
“For hundreds of years the pollution based economy has degraded our home,” states Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a news release. “We can no longer allow a failed system to continue to destroy the planet. The Paris Climate Change Agreement reflects the global consensus that we must act together and we must act now.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said they will fill the vacuum and take aggressive action to protect the places we call home. The tribes said in a news release that climate change touches all aspect of life, from those who have no voice, the salmon, buffalo, seals and polar bears, to those who are suffering the impacts of water loss, shoreline erosion, drought and loss of homelands and waters.
Across North American tribes see climate change, or global warming, as real, human-caused, and something that is changing life right now.
The Quinault Nation is already experiencing an increase in ocean storm surges that requires the Lower Village of Taholah be relocated because of flooding and a potential catastrophe if there were to be a tsunami.
Tribal President Fawn Sharp said: “We are talking about human lives here, and regardless of who is in office the fact is the federal government is our trustee … This responsibility is constitutionally mandated, and it’s not something the President or anyone else can wriggle out of.”
“Climate change is the definite direct cause of many other challenges as well, not just for us here at Quinault but for all citizens,” she said. “When a critically important glacier that’s thousands of years old totally disappears in a matter of a few years, it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong. And that something is man-caused climate change. The same goes for the massive algal blooms and the, warm areas and acidification problem in the ocean, the increased forest fire danger, slide and erosion problems, invasive species and low flows in our area rivers. These are very serious problems.”
Last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded $8.7 million for tribal climate change projects for 63 tribes. But more than 200 tribes applied for the program and the Trump administration says it is ending all federal spending on climate change programs.
The president said that withdrawing from the agreement will support more energy resource development, including a revival of the coal industry. And a couple of weeks ago Vice President Mike Pence toured a working coal mine on the Crow Reservation promising new jobs. But that might be an impossible dream. The job losses in the coal industry have more to do with the low price of natural gas and changing global markets.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II says his tribe is actively moving away from fossil fuels. “Indigenous communities around the world are among those being most quickly and severely affected by climate change. Regardless of the official position of the United States administration, we will continue to stand together in agreement with the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Archambault said. “Our tribe is actively working to move away from fossil fuels and we continue to battle those who disregard our efforts to protect our water and lands.”
People living in Alaska are also already seeing impact of a warming planet. “Alaska tribal governments are living with the early but significant effects of climate change. Our traditional knowledge learned over millennia within our aboriginal lands leaves us with no doubt that immediate action to reduce the impacts of climate change is our duty as sovereign indigenous governments,” states Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson, “such, we will seek to participate in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”
This might be a moment for tribes to engage in global diplomacy. In the news release, Sharp said: “When we get a seat at that table people in this country who understand the climate change problem might be able to convey their concerns through us at the international level. We might also be able to sign on to the Paris Agreement. We are looking into that possibility. So it is possible that even though the US has backed out of that historic agreement, the tribal governments from throughout the country could help fill the void,” said President Sharp.
A line of trucks and commercial vehicles on North Dakota’s Highway 6 Saturday was a speeding train. One vehicle after another. Traveling too fast and too close. Then, still on track, the entire train turned left and began racing down a rural dirt road.
It was clear why: This is where the Dakota Access Pipeline is being constructed. Fresh dirt marks where the pipeline has been and where it’s supposed to go. Construction is on a speedy timetable. As the company has testified in court it wants the 1,170 mile, $3.8 billion project up and running by January 1, 2017.
Yet the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several hundred people camped near by are determined to slow down that train, protect the waters of the Missouri River, and ultimately, help the country begin the most important conversation of this era about energy, climate and survival. (Previous: From Paris to Standing Rock, it’s about the climate choices ahead.)
So the machinery of the state of North Dakota has been engaged to stay on schedule. To be clear: North Dakota is acting as the trustee for the company, using what it considers the powers of state, to make this project so.
How far will North Dakota go?
Look at where it has been. The state has been an ally instead of a referee. Helping to craft a regulatory approach that avoided regulation. There is this crazy notion that the company did everything it was supposed to do so leave them alone. Yah. Because the plan was to avoid pesky regulation. It’s so much more efficient to be governed by official winks instead of an Environmental Impact Statement.
Even now the Dakota Access Pipeline figures the state (with allies in DC) will give in and sign the final paperwork. As the Energy Transfer Partners attorney told the court: “The status quo is that we’re in the middle of building a pipeline.” So, according to Oil and Gas 360, “the next step will be for ETP to acquire easements to drill the pipeline under Lake Oahe. In the most probable scenario, the Corps will grant permits while District Court litigation will continue. ETP would ‘likely get notice on easement status by the end of October and would take 60 days to drill under the lake with a full crew and no major disruptions.'”
No worries. The state’s machinery is supposed to make it so.
How far will North Dakota go?
They’ve already tried intimidation, humiliation, and the number of arrests are increasing. Pick on protectors, elders, journalists, famous people, anyone who could make the state appear potent. The latest tactic is to toss around the word “riot” as if saying it often enough will change its definition. “Authorities arrest 83 protesters during a riot Saturday,” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier posted on Facebook. “Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful. It was obvious to our officers who responded that the protesters engaged in escalated unlawful tactics and behavior during this event. This protest was intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators.”
What’s extraordinary about that statement is the sheriff’s own pictures show a peaceful protest. As Mel Brooks once wrote in Young Frankenstein: “A riot is an ugly thing.” This was not.
But the key phrase in the sherrif’s words is fuel for the state’s machinery, the words “… or lawful.” That is the important phrase because the state would like a protest that lets the status quo continue building a pipeline. The idea of civil disobedience is that there are unjust laws (or in this case, rigged laws) and there are people willing go to jail to highlight that injustice. The state lost its moral claim when it moved the pipeline route away from its own capital city to near the Standing Rock Nation.
Again, the question is, how far will North Dakota go?
Is the state ready to arrest hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And then what? The illogical conclusion to that question is too terrible to think about.
Yesterday a call went out from the camps for more people. People who, as Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, are willing to get arrested. People who will interrupt their lives so that this pipeline will go no further. It’s a call to a higher law than the one that’s codified by North Dakota. And for every water protector arrested, there will always be someone else ready to be next.
** Update **
Goldtooth reported Sunday on Facebook that a new camp is going up. “First tipi is up. Directly on the proposed path of the pipeline. We are directly between the pipeline and water now.” That will press the issue.
How far will North Dakota go? The military-style law enforcement base at Fort Rice sends its message: Whatever it takes. Status quo must have its a pipeline. That’s frightening.
Except. There is an antidote to those fears. It’s found among the people at the Standing Rock camps who continue to use prayer as their status quo. Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com
Ten months ago the United States told the world it was ready to do something about climate change. Enough talk. Time to act. And because of the nature of the crisis, the world’s governments are moving quickly. Well, at least as measured by governments. On Wednesday President Barack Obama said the global agreement will begin implementation on Nov. 4 after being ratified by European nations.
“Today, the world meets the moment. And if we follow through on the commitments that this agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet,” the president said.
And the Paris agreement formally begins on Nov. 4, four days before the U.S. presidential election in which Republican Donald Trump opposes the deal as well as science, while Democrat Hillary Clinton strongly supports it.
“Now, the Paris Agreement alone will not solve the climate crisis. Even if we meet every target embodied in the agreement, we’ll only get to part of where we need to go,” the President said. But make no mistake, this agreement will help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. It will help other nations ratchet down their dangerous carbon emissions over time, and set bolder targets as technology advances, all under a strong system of transparency that allows each nation to evaluate the progress of all other nations. And by sending a signal that this is going to be our future — a clean energy future — it opens up the floodgates for businesses, and scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation at a scale that we’ve never seen before. So this gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we’ve got.”
The test of those words is found at Standing Rock. If, the president, the government, the world, really believe that the agreement will only get us part of where we need to go to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, then stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline is essential.
A recent report by Oil Change International, and a consortium of environmental organizations, calls for a “managed decline of fossil fuel production.” The logic is simple, math. The study measures potential carbon emissions from “where the wells are already drilled, the pits dug, and the pipelines, processing facilities, railways, and export terminals constructed.” Add those numbers up and “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond two degrees Celsius of warming.”
In other words: Keep it in the ground is not just a slogan but the answer to the math question, “how does the world meet its target of limiting global warming to 2°C?” Remember, and this is important, two degrees Celsius is supposed to be the upper limit. The Paris agreement calls for nations to work toward a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, a much more difficult goal.
“Scientists say that to have even a two-thirds chance of staying below a global increase of two degrees Celsius, we can release 800 gigatons more CO2 into the atmosphere,” writes Bill McKibben in The New Republic. “But the Rystad data shows coal mines and oil and gas wells currently in operation worldwide contain 942 gigatons worth of CO2. So the math problem is simple, and it goes like this: 942 > 800.” That’s just to hit the 2 degree target. To reach the more difficult, stretch goal? McKibben says “to have even a 50–50 chance of meeting that goal, we can only release about 353 gigatons more CO2. So let’s do the math again: 942 > 353.”
Even that number. challenging as it is, does not mean we give up fossil fuels over night. (One of the first dismissals of what was occurring at Standing Rock was by industry supporters who said, “oh, but they drive cars and trucks there …”) As the report puts it: “This does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight. Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it.”
That’s really the key in North Dakota — and beyond. Starting the transition by saying that Dakota Access Pipeline represents our past and a mistake. And as part of a managed decline, major fossil fuel infrastructure projects — this pipeline — are no more.
But what about the jobs? What will this do to North Dakota? Actually it could be a great thing. Data from Stanford researchers shows that the transition to clean energy could happen faster than projected — and benefit a state almost immediately. In North Dakota the Solutions Project says an transformation “plan pays for itself in as little as 2 years from air pollution and climate cost savings alone.” Two years? Imagine the intellectual activity, the construction, the jobs, the fresh investment, all that would come together to make that so. It would be mind-blowing. The Stanford data says such a transition would create 8,574 permanent operations jobs and 21,744 construction jobs.
But this global challenge, the data of climate change, adds up to one thing: Standing Rock is a test. The United States cannot meet its obligations to the world if it continues business as usual. It’s just not possible, the math of carbon emissions cannot be wished away. The people who are camped at Standing Rock are giving President Obama the opportunity to show how a managed decline is possible. And, if done right, inspiring. As the president said, “this gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we’ve got.”
Will young people vote in 2016? And, more important, at least for our purposes, how about the younger generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives?
Let’s explore the first question.
Younger voters are perplexing. They are, or should be, the largest group voters, some 75 million. And the data shows they are far more likely to vote for Democrats than other generations. Except there is an “except.” Young voters are less likely to vote.
In 2008 they were a key constituent bloc helping to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States. In fact, in 2004, 2006, and 2008 young voters were the majority of Democratic party votes; the most supportive group. And, according to Pew Research, in 2008 some two-thirds of those under 30 voted for Barack Obama “making the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.”
But after 2008, well, not so much.
A report by the Census Bureau on voting patterns said: “In 2012, the voting population 45 years of age and over increased, while the number of voters 18 through 44 years old decreased. Between 1996 and 2008, there was only a single example of an age group showing a decrease in net voting from one presidential election to the next, yet in 2012 significant decreases occurred for two age groups. Younger voters 18 through 29 years of age reported a net voting decrease of about 1.8 million, while voters between the ages of 30 through 44 reported a decrease of about 1.7 million.” The bottom line: A decrease of 1.9 million voters between the ages of 30- through 44-year-olds in 2012.
The data backs up the idea that young people were excited by Obama’s first presidential campaign. He changed the conversation. But then the hard slog of politics, the fights with Congress, the slow pace of change, and so many compromises by Obama turned off younger voters. That’s a problem that goes beyond any single candidate. How do you convince younger voters that politics and policy are more complicated than an election slogan?
Hillary Clinton has been trying to figure out younger voters. But as The New York Times pointed out this week that’s not so easy. As a group they do not watch television and “they tend not to be motivated by any single, unifying issue, making the job of messaging harder. They are declaring themselves unaffiliated with either party at a rate faster than any other generation. They say the political process and the two-party system are unresponsive to their concerns.”
This is true in Indian Country, too. It’s reflected on Facebook where younger American Indian and Alaska Native voters equate Clinton with the establishment and do not understand why Bernie Sanders is no longer an option. For his part, Sanders has campaigned with Clinton. He wrote in The Los Angeles Times: “My supporters and I began a political revolution to transform America. That revolution continues as Hillary Clinton seeks the White House. It will continue after the election. It will continue until we create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent – a government based on the principle of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”
There are even some younger Native American voters who see Donald Trump as an agent of change and worth the risk (all the while proclaiming support for Standing Rock or calling for more federal action on climate change.)
Part of the problem is that Clinton does not understand the priorities of younger voters. Recent hacked audio conversations between Clinton and high-value donors back in February explain that gap. “There’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel,” she said according to Politico.
That’s where the Standing Rock story comes into play.
Clinton has been silent about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline dispute. The narrative from the camps is that she doesn’t care. I suspect the real issue is that her staff sees this as another pipeline dispute similar to Keystone XL pipeline. She was not eager to weigh in on that issue either. They don’t see this as unique moment in history when all of North America’s indigenous people are speaking with one voice.
The Clinton generation, and that includes the Obama administration, cling to the idea that we can continue to drill and transport oil the same way we have been doing it for decades. They say climate change is real, but back away from the hard decisions required to limit consumption of fossil fuels. In a lot of ways they play the same “either, or” game as the extractive industry equating oil and gas production with a strong economy (and votes). But I think younger voters would understand a call to sacrifice. A Harvard study last year found that three-out-of-four see climate change as real and caused by humans.
To my way of thinking: The single best thing Clinton could do to connect with younger voters would be to visit the camps at Standing Rock, learn from what’s going on, and take a stand. The evidence for why such an approach would work with younger voters is found across social media. When there is a report of an event, a prayer, or direct action, it spreads via social media by the hundreds of thousands. Imagine what it would mean to any campaign to collect the data from likes and reactions from that potential pool of voters.
So what about younger American Indian and Alaska Native voters? As the NativeVote.Org web site reports: “The Native youth population is growing at a rate higher than the rest of the country. Native Vote in partnerships with other youth non‐profit organizations will be working to reach out to these new and future voters. Part of this effort will include the development of a youth curriculum to encourage civic engagement and get them involved and be part of making a difference in their communities.”
But those numbers remain a promise and a concern. How many will take the steps necessary to vote?
I recently wrote this about the potential voters from the camps at Standing Rock: “Many of the water protectors arrived about a month ago and say they were willing to stay as long as it takes. That means (or it could mean) that they are residents under North Dakota law and could vote in the next election. How would that work? There would have to be some mechanism in place to certify the “new residents” either by identification or more likely by affirmation. If that is done now, then people at the camps can vote in the November election because North Dakota does not require voter registration. Imagine adding 2,000, 3,000 people or more to the voter rolls in Morton County, ND. There could even be a write-in campaign for county offices (members of the county commission are currently running unopposed). This would send a message to those in office that the people at the camps are constituents, too.”
Beyond the Standing Rock camps another potential pool of voters could come from tribal colleges.
In North Dakota there are some 3,500 tribal college students enrolled across the state, including 1,500 at United Tribes Technical College. Residential college students can vote using a campus address (or by absentee with their home address). Either way imagine a turnout goal of 90 percent.
Across the country that’s nearly 30,000 students or 27,000 voters at 90 percent.
Then a goal of 90 percent Native youth turnout, lofty as it is, could be set for colleges and universities, tribal communities, and in urban areas. This election has a loud call to action that transcends normal politics and that’s a resolution to the Standing Rock issues as well as the next White House getting more serious about climate change action.
Will younger voters show? We don’t know. But we do know this: Older voters will be there. “Presidential elections have been dominated by voters of the Baby Boom and previous generations, who are estimated to have cast a majority of the votes,” notes Pew Research Center. And that “election reign” may come to an end this November … that is only if younger voters are present.
On Friday I tweeted: “What an extraordinary day, the federal government has a pulse.” The United States finally weighed in on what many of us believe is the most important issue in the country right now: The question of how this nation will address climate change.
And pulse or not this remains an unsettled question. But at least last week the federal government took one small step toward the right answer.
Let’s back up. The Standing Rock Tribe filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the agency did not adequately consult with the tribe as required law. On Friday U.S. District Judge James Boasberg disagreed, saying that the Tribe had not demonstrated that an injunction was warranted to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The most remarkable section of the ruling, however, was the background of the case. “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land.”
The only regulatory role for the federal government in this case “concerns construction activities in federally regulated waters at hundreds of discrete places along the pipeline route. The Corps needed to permit this activity under the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act – and sometimes both. For DAPL, accordingly, it permitted these activities under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 12.”
In other words — as a public policy — there is no public debate about this pipeline except in the context of water.
“We appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain.”
So the Department of the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior acted to “reconsider” previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site and its approval. “The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution,” the statement said. “In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
The statement also called for a serious discussion on tribal consultation about such projects. (More about that later.)
So what does this all mean? It means there will be a quick review (who knows what quick means in Fed-speak) about the underground water crossing of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation.
And, if the federal government has a pulse, it also has the ability to keep a secret. There is no way this was a rushed decision. This had to be debated at the White House level because so many multiple federal agencies were involved (it’s interesting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy did not join in on this statement.)
The idea that the water crossing needs a second look is a entry point into a larger question, how important are water resources in the era of climate change?
I suspect the oil and pipeline industry already knows the answer. A news release from the National Association of Manufacturers said “President Obama has crossed the line.” This decision “sets a bad precedent that could threaten future infrastructure projects.” The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now was even gloomier in its assessment. “Should the Administration ultimately stop this construction, it would set a horrific precedent. No sane American company would dare expend years of effort and billions of dollars weaving through an onerous regulatory process receiving all necessary permits and agreements, only to be faced with additional regulatory impediments and be shutdown halfway through completion of its project.”
This is too rich. A federal judge (in a ruling the industry liked) said the process was not onerous. In fact it’s the opposite because domestic oil pipelines require no general approval from the federal government.
The Midwest Alliance went on to say: “We hope and trust that the government will base its final decision on sound science and engineering, not political winds or pressure.”
And that is exactly where the country ought to start the conversation, using sound science.
The federal government’s best science comes from the U.S. Global Research Program. In its most recent report, it says “climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline is such a challenge. The industry’s own promotions say this pipeline will move more oil to markets faster, eventually moving 570,000 barrels a day. Instead of reducing consumption, it makes it easier and cheaper for Americans to have more.
Yet at the same time the United States has promised the rest of the world that we will use slow down our use of oil and reduce our carbon impact. The official goal is to limit the increase (not reverse) global warming to “well below” 2 degrees centigrade. That will not happen with more, cheaper oil.
Again, consider the Federal Government’s best science. It says: “Climate change challenges the idea of hydrologic stationarity, which assumes that the statistical characteristics of hydrologic data are constant over time—in other words, that water dynamics of the future can be expected to be similar to those of the past. Climate change means that this assumption may not hold for all cases, undermining fundamental paradigms of water resource management and infrastructure design.” My translation: We need to protect water as the most important resource on the planet.
That same report says in order to protect basic human needs there needs to be “a safeguarding of natural assets, promoting resilience in urban and rural areas, decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth, and encouraging sustainable production and consumption patterns.”
The sound science is clear. We need to make sure that water is treated as the nation’s most important natural resource. Water is life. That’s not politics. It’s science.
My ears perked up when I heard that Hillary Clinton was giving a speech on American Exceptionalism. I cringe every time this is a topic; the idea is far too close to Manifest Destiny.
“The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country,” Secretary Clinton said Wednesday. She went on to say that “we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead.”
If that’s true, that’s not a bad thing. But it all depends what happens over the next few weeks and months near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. If the United States is to be that “indispensable nation” it has to lead on the most important crisis Mother Earth faces, climate change.
This is not what Clinton was talking about. Her speech was all about global security, the military, and global alliances. But her words were exactly on point on the issue of climate change. As she put it: “Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead. The question is how we lead. What kind of ideas, strategies, and tactics we bring to our leadership. American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.”
And those should be the same themes when it comes to the global reaction to climate change.
Last year Clinton praised the Paris Climate Change Agreement. “The Paris agreement is testament to America’s ability to lead the world in building a clean energy future where no one is left out or left behind,” she said … “we will only succeed if we redouble our efforts going forward to drive innovation, increase investment, and reap the benefits of the good-paying jobs that will come from transitioning to a clean energy economy. The next decade of action is critical—because if we do not press forward with driving clean energy growth and cutting carbon pollution across the economy, we will not be able to avoid catastrophic consequences.”
So let’s be absolutely clear here: The tribal community of Standing Rock and the people downstream on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation are those who would be left out and left behind unless the Dakota Access Pipeline is stopped.
First, the United States and other nations that signed must apply “additional and more stringent measures” on fossil fuels going forward. Second, “as a result, the impact of regulation on the oil and gas sector is set to intensify.” And, third, in language that should say in b0ld, No Dakota Access Pipeline, “avoid over-investment in potentially unnecessary projects.”
The report says if nations do not do this then “investment in consumption and production of fossil fuels will continue and oil and gas companies will make risky investments to meet unsustainable demand.”
That is exactly the problem in North Dakota. The same day Secretary Clinton was outlining “American Exceptionalism,” the chief executive officer of Chevron, Steven S. Watson, was posting on LinkedIn why he thinks oil and gas are indispensable. (There’s that word again.) “Ours is a long-term business, so we know that eventually supply and demand will come back into balance and prices will stabilize. The global economy depends on it,” he says. “The energy we produce enables light, heat, mobility, mechanized agriculture, modern communications, the health system that keeps us well, and the many electronic devices that keep us connected and entertained. It’s also the feedstock for everything from crayons to contact lenses, not to mention the basis of our roads and runways.”
Watson argues that change will come slowly and even with reductions in emissions, “oil and natural gas will still account for 44 percent (of all energy use), with coal providing an additional 16 percent.”
I disagree. I think this whole line of thinking misses the impact of disruption. And, as I wrote in my recent piece for Yes! magazine, I think the events at Standing Rock are a disruption of the norm.
But that logic of “we all need more oil” is a recurring theme used to belittle the actions at Standing Rock. The line goes: Folks drive to the camps using gas; they mark up signs with oil-based writing instruments; and, sleep under fabrics made from petroleum. The charge is, “how can you be against the Dakota Access Pipeline when you use these things?”
But no one. Not the people at Standing Rock. Not the Paris agreement signers, again, including the United States, are saying we will stop using fossil fuel-based products. What’s being said and not heard is that we as humans have to reverse course. Instead of consuming more oil every year, we need to start using less, and leave more oil, gas, and especially coal, in the ground. And significantly less. As the Chatham House report says to “send a strong signal to those who consume and produce carbon-based fuels so that their investment plans can be amended to reflect the shape of a lower carbon economy.”
And especially ending the construction of “potentially unnecessary projects.”
Tim Kaine, the Democrat’s Vice Presidential nominee, was asked yesterday if he would stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to a video posted by 350 Action on Twitter he replied “that’s one I have to educate myself on.” But he said the court should take the tribe’s complaint “very seriously.”
But it’s more than that. You see the Clinton-Kaine would-be-administration has already said what it thinks about this issue when it promised an energy future “where no one is left out or left behind.”
So the question is whether or not those words have meaning.