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Advocacy group's extreme weather map brings climate change home

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Climate change much? A new map published today by the Natural Resources Defense Council makes it plain that extreme weather attributable to climate change isn’t something that only happens in other parts of the world. Chances are you’ve had your own Hurricane Irene, or drought, or something like it in your own backyard.

The interactive map lays out 2,941 monthly weather records broken in communities throughout the U.S. from January thru October of this year, and traces an onslaught of severe storms, drought, flooding and calamity. The point is to show how climate change is affecting your community every day.

“We did this analysis because we wanted to aggregate state-by-state what had happened for people, so they could see it on the map,” said Kim Knowlton, senior scientist in the Health and Environment program at the NRDC. “I think it’s pretty stunning: One can see in the Northeast how much record-breaking rainfall; in the South, in particular, how much record-breaking heat. We have icons, too, for drought and wildfire. For snowfall, all over the Midwest and the Northeast.”

An interesting interactive element plays the entire year like a video, showing rain, flood and storms surging across the country.

So what? A weather map of any year might look like this, right?

Not necessarily. These are all record events, so they didn’t happen quite this way before. One of the criteria for the data was that it had to break records at a weather stations with a data record of 30 years or more.

The map, Knowlton said, shows “how climate change could increase either the frequency or the intensity or the extent of some of these unfortunately rather damaging extreme events, and the kind of preparedness steps we need to be taking. Because there is a heck of a lot we can be doing to prepare ourselves to better meet these challenges.”

Like, for instance, pass meaningful climate change legislation. Or, at least, prepare for the consequences of these big events on the health of the populace. Knowlton points out that illness and injury to humans, which can add billions of dollars to the cost of a major weather event, are often not included in damage reports. The NRDC just published a report about this in collaboration with the University of California.

“In concert, the extreme weather map from 2011, plus the climate-health vulnerability map, together give a very rich picture of what we need to think about in the future,” Knowlton said.

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Inupiat whaling, drilling at stake in recent Alaska mayor's race

-- Dean Kuipers

Graphic: An interactive map produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows 2,941 record-breaking weather events recorded across the U.S. from January through October. Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

Inupiat whaling, drilling at stake in recent Alaskan mayor’s race

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Independent photojournalists Will Rose and Kajsa Sjölander were on Alaska’s North Slope in November to document traditional whaling by the native Inupiat people and found themselves at the height of a highly charged mayoral election season, with whaling and a gargantuan new Shell oil drilling project at stake.

Check out a fascinating photo gallery of images from their trip, exclusive to the Los Angeles Times.

The two were on hand as Charlotte Brower became the first female mayor for Alaska’s North Borough, a regional municipality that covers the north part of the state, a vast terrain with only eight small communities comprising about 10,000 mostly Inupiat Eskimos. The North Borough mayoralty, including the town of Barrow, has significant influence regarding federal decisions about offshore oil drilling and other resource uses affecting the area.

Royal Dutch Shell has already received some permits to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but has been dogged by resistance such as a 2007 lawsuit by outgoing mayor Edward Itta that challenged the environmental effects of drilling and any potential spill –- all very real in the wake of the large Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Drilling in Arctic waters is subject to many technical hurdles, but receding ice packs resulting from global warming have made drilling more enticing.

Though Brower is expected to continue to have relatively friendly relations with Shell, ConocoPhillips and other oil companies who are looking to drill off the coast, there were marked differences between her and the second-place finisher, former five-term mayor George Ahmaogak Sr. Notably, Brower made a point of declaring that she was anti-drilling and the borough needs someone to “stand up to the oil companies.” Her husband works with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Ahmaogak, who says he too is against drilling but wants to make sure the community continues to receive millions of dollars in oil revenue, was a former Alaska community affairs manager for Shell. In the North Borough, however, lines of allegiance are quite hard to draw; Ahmaogak’s wife is a former head of the whaling commission. Subsequently, the race was tight, with Brower winning 1,022 votes to Ahmaogak’s 960.

Rose, who is English, and Sjölander, who is Swedish, have spent the last three years documenting the effects of climate change on the polar regions. They call their project 70°, because most of their work has turned out to be along the 70th parallel -– cutting through parts of the Arctic Ocean, Canada, Russia, Greenland, the United States and north Scandinavia.

“The trip to Alaska seemed a logical progression, as Shell have received the preliminary permits to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012,” wrote Rose and Sjölander in an email to The Times from their home outside Gothenberg, Sweden. “At the same time, the Inupiat hunters are noticing changes in climate, sea ice and increasing numbers of polar bears are coming to shore around Kaktovik.

“Every autumn, polar bears come to Kaktovik in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to feed on the remains of bowhead whales from the traditional Inupiat harvest, but in recent years they have come in much larger numbers. Scientists are using DNA from hair snares to determine which bears show up in Kaktovik, and for how long. This information can help wildlife managers minimize human-bear conflicts, and understand how the animals are faring as climate change reduces the amount of time they can spend on the sea ice hunting their preferred prey, seals.”

The Inupiat hunt bowhead whales and are allowed 80 strikes on the whales during the fall hunt. A strike is an attack on a whale, though an animal sometimes escapes. In 2010 the community took 46 whales, which they split among themselves for food according to traditional distribution formulas.

Environmental concerns and protection of the traditional whaling culture are definitely top of mind in the region. The two journalists found that the small town of Point Hope was particularly active in fighting offshore drilling plans.

“The tribal government of Point Hope, backed by a group of 12 environmental organizations and Earth Justice, have challenged the validity of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s conditional approval of Shell’s exploration plan. The decision has now been delayed in the courts again till December. The petition states that the BOEMRE decision violates the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Former president of the Point Hope tribal government, Caroline Cannon, has fought the offshore plans for over five years,” write Rose and Sjölander.
 
The pair penned a story about their travels in the region and the politics around the election, which may be part of their upcoming 70° website. In that story, Point Hope city Mayor Steve Oomittuk told them, “The animals make us who we are; they’re our clothing, our shelter, our food, our spirituality, a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Without the animals, we aren’t who we are, we are not the people of Point Hope.”

Rose said he felt that an embezzlement charge swung the election. “I think that Ahmoagak’s wife, Maggie, being charged with embezzling $475,000 from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission played a part,” he wrote. “She served as the group’s executive director for 17 years until 2007. When she got fired after the financial irregularities were uncovered, George was working for Shell at the same time. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is supposed to protect the interests of the subsistence whaling community.”

The amount of money at stake is enormous. A Shell-commissioned study by consulting company Northern Economics and the University of Alaska Anchorage estimates that new drilling plans could generate $176 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue over a 45-year period from 2012 to 2057. Of that, $3.7 billion would go to the North Slope Borough.

Both Rose and Sjölander hope their futures includes a lot more snowy photos: “Our original idea was to circumnavigate the 70th parallel in 1 – 2 years, by skiing, sled or whatever means necessary. That sadly remains a dream, but we do our best by saving up and hoping to get commissions that allow us to continue with our project.”

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Photo: The Brower family of Barrow, Alaska, welcome community elders for a feast in their home after taking a bowhead whale during the fall subsistence hunt. Recent North Slope Borough elections reflected concerns over new proposed offshore oil drilling that could threaten sea life. Credit: Will Rose and Kajsa Sjolander

Illinois sequestration project is first in U.S. for man-made CO2

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A demonstration project in Illinois is the first in the U.S. to begin pumping over a million metric tons of man-made liquid CO2 into permanent underground storage. The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium announced this week that its project in Decatur, Ill., had begun injecting carbon dioxide into sandstone formations 7,000 feet below ground.

Carbon dioxide capture and sequestration is a key strategy for combating the industrial emissions that contribute to global warming. In this case, the carbon dioxide is a byproduct of ethanol production in a nearby plant run by Archer Daniels Midland. The project is a joint project by the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) of the Prairie Research Institute, ADM and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy.

Robert J. Finley, leader of the project and director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative at the ISGS at the University of Illinois, was excited to talk about it, saying: “In the Midwest, and specifically here in Illinois, we’re beginning to document that the geology is very suitable for the storage of carbon. The production of biofuels from crop products can be a very effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of our liquid fuels because you’re taking that liquid CO2 and putting it in the ground.”

Making ethanol, then, becomes a carbon pump. Plants such as corn fix CO2 that is taken from the air. Then, during the production of ethanol for fuel, the CO2 is released and captured, dehydrated and compressed into a liquid, then run through a short pipeline and directly into the ground.

Finley points out that, as a demonstration project, working with an ethanol plant has distinct advantages. With a coal-fired power plant, for example, much of the expense of a sequestration project involves separating the CO2 from the other gases in the smokestack emissions, which are about 12% to 14% carbon dioxide. The fermentation tanks in ethanol production, however, produce about 99.9% carbon dioxide, which is then easily gathered at low cost at the rate of about 1,000 metric tons per day.

“The research that we’re doing is very much on the subsurface geologic environment, to make sure that we can do this safely and effectively, and that we can monitor the CO2,” says Finley. “So we’re using our research dollars to answer these important questions about safety and effectiveness, and we don’t have to use our Department of Energy-funded dollars to just try to get our flow of CO2.”

The Illinois project is one of seven regional partnerships studying sequestration around the country, and the first to use a man-made CO2 source. The project takes advantage of the massive Mt. Simon Sandstone, which is below several layers of shale that serve as a cap to keep the liquid in place. The storage capacity of Mt. Simon is estimated at 11 to 151 billion metric tons.

Establishing that million-metric ton projects are feasible is important because a medium-sized 500 MW coal-fired power plant produces about 3 million metric tons of CO2 per year, and are a key target for sequestration projects.

Finley points out that the Decatur project is not related to the troubled FutureGen project, which sought to build an advanced coal-to-gas power plant in Illinois and sequester its emissions, then was revised to refit a Meredosia plant after Obama took office. That project has been plagued by cost overruns, and major partners have pulled out at various points of the project. He does say, however, that some of the technology that would be used to do that sequestration, and the actual sandstone formation used, would be the same.

The Decatur experiment is expected to continue injecting CO2 for the next three years, and has drawn significant interest from other scientists and industrial concerns around the world.

[For the record, Dec 2, 2011, 11:45 AM: This post has been corrected. The photograph and photographer were miscredited, and the original text failed to identify the Illinois State Geological Survey of the Prairie Research Institute as a partner in the consortium.]


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Photo: The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium verification well in Decatur, Ill. The project is the first to sequester 1 million metric tons of man-made CO2 in limestone formations below ground. Credit: Daniel Byers for the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium

'Entourage’s' Adrian Grenier and Peter Glatzer SHFT Hollywood green

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When "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier was introduced to indie film producer Peter Glatzer a number of years back, their mutual commitment to eco-friendliness and sustainability compelled them to work together. They put together the show “Alter Eco” for Discovery’s Planet Green channel in 2008, a reality show about folks moving the needle on sustainability. The pair saw a hunger for solutions, but realized they needed a new platform that could grow as they grew. SHFT was born.

Yes, SHFT.com is a website, but Grenier and Glatzer have already proved it can be more than that. It’s an honest attempt to move ideas into the culture. The “Watch” section has five original video series that continue to expand, including the “Eat LACMA” series on food and community, and “Lighten Up,” about green touring strategies for bands on the road. Like “Alter Eco,” the shows are about beautiful people making a difference. But the site is also a pretty impressive resource for sustainable products as varied as electronics and art, and a connection to lifestyle news and information.

SHFT is creating an entity that’s pretty rare for famous Hollywood types: a community.

“We’re looking to permeate the culture and change the perception of what it means to be environmentally friendly,” Grenier says by phone from New York. “Because, for so long, it’s been a marginalized cause. But we don’t see it as a cause. We see it as a way to improve your quality of life.”

Glatzer, speaking from L.A., takes it further: “The notion of ‘environmentalism’ was just antiquated and anachronistic to the world we live in now. To think of environmentalism as a movement or a separate category of things that we do that are Earth-friendly is not the way to think about it. It has to be folded into the fabric of our lives and into the small choices that we make every day.”

In October, the site manifested briefly as a pop-up gallery and shop on La Brea Avenue, something the pair has been doing in New York for years at Christmastime, and the opening was packed with people pawing over the bikes, art, furniture and housewares. The products on the website are made real at these events, and SHFT may soon develop a bricks-and-mortar entity in partnership with a mainstream retailer.

Mainstream, by the way, is where they want to be. These are people who make movies and TV, so of course the first thing they did was make a show. And they are still making shows. But “Alter Eco” confirmed that Hollywood is mostly allergic to this kind of thing, and for good reason: do-gooding is not (usually) hot media.

“Media is very tricky because it thrives on conflict,” Grenier acknowledges. “Really, the environmental notion is the opposite -- it’s something that is full or harmony and goodwill amongst people and collaboration, so it’s difficult to dramatize.”

Glatzer thinks the ideas just have to be worked into the groundwork of everything they make. “I watch movies all the time, like ‘The Descendents,’ for example, Alexander Payne’s new film. It really does have an environmental component to it that isn’t overt at all. It’s an appropriate dollop of environmentalism,” he says.

“If it’s a background, context-setting thing, great, but otherwise, I don’t know,” Glatzer adds.

None of this, by the way, is overtly political. They’re looking to change the culture through everyday choices.

“We like market-driven solutions,” says Glatzer. “As much as we’d love to see policies change and see the public sector do various things that we’re actually quite passionate about, having consumers be aware of what their options were was one of our big goals. And to make it fun.”

“Yeah, I found that my snarky, condescending glances at people, when I walked around the set, were totally ineffective,” chuckles Grenier. “I find that being able to take someone by the shoulders and say, ‘Hey, check out SHFT,’ or ‘Do you want to come to this pop-up store?’ is much more enjoyable for the both of us.”

Speaking of which, their first SHFT brand product? A red wine made in Paso Robles, SHFT House Wines. Because, yeah, it’s organic and all that; but it’s also a party in a bottle. Available on the site in the coming weeks.

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Photo: Adrian Grenier, left, and Peter Glatzer at the opening of the SHFT pop-up gallery and shop on La Brea Avenue in October. Credit: Brent Harrison for Guest of a Guest L.A.

Doug Brinkley, Rep. Don Young squabble over Arctic refuge

Musk ox in the Arctic refuge
Famed biographer Doug Brinkley has written exhaustively on the history of Alaskan wilderness, but Alaskan Rep. Don Young was having none of it recently when it came to the issue of drilling for oil at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The two men clashed bitterly last Friday as Brinkley, a professor at Rice University and the author most recently of “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom 1979-1960,” testified at a House Natural Resources Committee meeting regarding the effects of drilling in the refuge. Young interrupted Brinkley’s testimony, calling him “Dr. Rice” and saying his testimony was “garbage.”

“Dr. Brinkley. Rice is a university,” Brinkley shot back. “I know you went to Yuba College and you couldn't graduate.”

Young, getting visibly upset, retorted: “I'll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair. You just be quiet.”

"You don't own me," Brinkley said. "I pay your salary.”

Young sat through the testimony of several environmentalists at the panel, and when he got his chance to speak he noted in another YouTube clip featured on his congressional website that the Alaskan acreage they were talking about “is not the pristine area with wolves laying next to caribou, it’ll be a cold day in Saudi Arabia when that happens,” and added: “We’ve heard from environmentalists, and I understand their beliefs, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

After the exchange, he said he was “pissed” about Brinkley’s comments.

Brinkley got the last word when he expressed his surprise to “hear a congressman today say there’s nothing in his district. It’s boring. It’s flat. It’s not exciting. I don’t know a representative who doesn’t love their district. Every state in America’s landscape is beautiful if you love it. But some people love money more than their homeland or where they live, and I’m afraid that that’s why this fight has to keep coming up 50 years later, we’re still trying to tell people the Arctic refuge is real. It belongs to the American people.”

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Photo: Musk ox move across an area of coastal plain inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that could be considered for oil exploration in Alaska. Credit: Associated Press/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Sierra Club 's Carl Pope to step down as chairman

Carl Pope It's official: Carl Pope announced Friday that he is stepping down from his position as chairman of the Sierra Club to devote most of his time to working with environmental organizations, corporations and organized labor in the "green economy."

Pope, 66, who served the club for 17 years as executive director, announced his career change in an email to club members on Friday:

"Dear Sierra Club Colleagues,
 
After 38 years with the Sierra Club, I am opening my dance card to new partners. In December, I shall stand down as Chairman to undertake a new initiative. My hope is to pull together a broad front of environmental groups, labor unions, clean-economy innovators, mainline manufacturers, civil rights organizations, and state and local officials to insist that candidates for public office in 2012 address the role of innovation, clean technology, and manufacturing in rebuilding the American economy and restoring the American middle class. 
 
I will continue to serve as a consultant to the Sierra Club and to fund-raise on the Club's behalf through 2012, but this shift in my professional focus marks the close of my career as a full-time Club employee with broad-spectrum responsibility. Each of my previous Club roles, including my tenure as Chairman, has been a privilege and an opportunity, largely because of the incredible staff and volunteer colleagues with whom I have had the good fortune to work. I look forward to continuing many of those relationships -- and to building new ones as my role outside the Club develops.
 
There are simply too many of you to thank and too much to be grateful for. So, for now, let's just keep fighting the good fight.
 
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 Photo: Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope, who has announced he is stepping down. Credit: David Butow/For The Times

Greenhouse gases, water vapor and you

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Several readers pointed out an omission in last week’s post about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s release of its Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, which showed that man-made gases that contribute to global warming continued a steady rise. The post -– and the AGGI –- mentioned carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases, but failed to mention the biggest contributor to global warming: plain old water vapor.

“I want to comment that the way-dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is not mentioned, namely water vapor,” writes Ken Saunders of Pacific Palisades. “Water vapor accounts for about 97 percent of the total (natural plus man-emitted) greenhouse warming of the planet. See, e.g., John Houghton's ‘The Physics of Atmospheres, 3rd edition,’ Cambridge University Press, 2002.”

This is true, water vapor is the major player in the greenhouse effect and is often omitted from reports and reporting about global warming -– mostly because it is more of a symptom than a cause in global climate change, and cannot be easily mitigated.

Tom Boden, director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, acknowledges in an email: “Folks are right when they state water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas and not routinely measured directly in the atmosphere. Atmospheric water vapor is difficult to measure, highly reactive, and variable in amount due to meteorological conditions (i.e., atmospheric water vapor is continuously being generated from evaporation and continuously removed by condensation).”

“Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas and natural levels of [carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide] are also crucial to creating a habitable planet,” writes John Reilly, professor at MIT and co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Center for Environmental Policy Research, in an email.

That idea leads many to believe that global warming is natural and cannot be affected much by human activity. Reader Roy W. Rising of Valley Village writes: “Today's report focuses on a bundle of gases that comprise a very small part of total of ‘greenhouse’ gases. It totally disregards the long-known fact that about 95% of all ‘greenhouse’ gases is WATER VAPOR! Spending billions of dollars to alter a few components of the 5% won't affect the natural course of climate change.” 

Reilly warns, however, that scientists don’t blame water vapor or clouds for global warming.

“Concerns about global warming are about how human beings are altering the radiative balance,” says Reilly. “While some of the things we do change water vapor directly, they are insignificant. Increasing ghg's [greenhouse gases] through warming will increase water vapor and that is a big positive feedback [meaning: the more greenhouse gases, the more water vapor, the higher the temperature]. But the root cause are ghg's. So in talking about what is changing the climate, changes in water vapor are not a root cause.”

Water vapor is, however, included in modeling used to study global warming. Boden adds: “We do measure water vapor fluxes routinely at the Earth's surface in terrestrial systems. All climate models account for water vapor in the processes of evaporation, condensation and transpiration. Since water vapor is naturally occurring and mostly driven by natural processes it would be difficult to mitigate (e.g., cap on a lake) and thus does not enter into reduction discussions.”

So, when NOAA’s Jim Butler confirmed in our previous post that carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and two CFCs cause 95% of global warming, he meant that these five gases are at the root of a complex reaction that also involves water vapor and any number of other factors. The fact that you and I are responsible for generating a bunch of those man-made gases makes them the five to watch.

Thanks for placing your comments on the blog.

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Photo: Britney Waugh stands in Fogscreen, an exhibit at WIRED NextFest 2007 in which pictures are projected onto a vapor "screen" that is dry to the touch. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times.

Tree rings document ancient Western megadrought

PineResearchers say they have found new evidence of prolonged drought in parts of the West, suggesting megadroughts are not the rarity Westerners would like them to be.

Analyzing corings taken from ancient living and dead bristlecone pines in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, University of Arizona scientists found signs of extreme drought in the 2nd century that matches or exceeds the better-known droughts of the medieval period.

The composite tree-ring chronology, extending from 268 BC to AD 2009, shows that the longest dry periods in the entire record occurred during the first four centuries AD. The most pronounced drought lasted for about five decades in the second century.

Comparing their findings with two other tree-ring studies, the researchers concluded that the 2nd century drought was regional, extending from southern New Mexico north and west into Idaho.

Paleoclimatologist Connie Woodhouse, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said scientists have wondered if the severe Western droughts that occurred between 900 and 1400 were unique.

The new tree ring record indicates they weren't -- and could occur again. “There is no good reason that we shouldn’t expect to have those,” Woodhouse said.

She added that researchers are not sure of the causes of the megadroughts but speculate that above-average temperatures and persistent La Nina ocean conditions may have contributed to them.

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Photo: University of Arizona geoscientist Cody Routson takes a tree ring sample from a bristlecone pine. Credit: Mark Losleben / University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research

Obama pipeline decision courts youth vote

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When President Obama announced Thursday that he was delaying a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline for at least a year, it was partly the result of significant youth lobbying, says Courtney Hight, 32, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition.

The action also may have re-energized a 30s-and-under youth vote that was drifting away from his campaign.

“We are the generation that elected Barack Obama,” said Hight, formerly a staffer with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “Most of the organizers on the [Obama] campaign were under 30, and believed in this vision that President Obama put out. We were a little frustrated by not seeing the leadership on climate change that we wanted. So the XL Pipeline issue was an opportunity.

“He had been risking young people’s votes, and he showed us that he cares about our vote,” she added. “A lot of us are reinvigorated by the fact that he delayed this pipeline, which essentially kills it.”

A protest action on Sunday, Nov. 6, may have been the game-changer on the Keystone Pipeline decision. That day, about 12,000 people formed concentric rings around the White House to express their outrage over the environmental effectsof the project. Those people, says Hight, were organized by youth organizers from the EAC, the climate change group 350.org and Tar Sands Action, which focuses resistance to the development of the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada, where oil for the pipeline originates. Rather than be described as a protest, the action was seen as giving support to Obama, to show him physically by surrounding his house that he had the political backing to say no to this project. Heavy lifting was also done by mainstream groups the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, but the youthswere kept out front.

The EAC is a national coalition of about 50 youth environmental organizations, including the Sierra Student Coalition (the youth arm of the Sierra Club) and many other statewide student groups.

Over the summer, the EAC and many of these groups considered the pipeline a done deal -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said as much -- but students realized that this was one decision the president could make without congressional approval because it was being handled at the State Department. Groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network in South Dakota had been fighting an existing version of the pipeline (it extends into the Dakotas already) for more than four years.

So, in August, students gathered at the White House to express their disapproval, and 1,253 of them were arrested. Hight’s friends inside the White House acknowledged to her that the issue hadn’t really been on the president’s radar until that point. So she and others dug in.

Students in Missouri raised money and bought tickets to Obama campaign fundraisers, at which they asked pointed questions about the pipeline and the tar sands. Soon, students were dogging the campaign, asking questions at Obama for America offices, campaign events, fundraisers and debates. Then, the big action on Sunday.

“I haven’t seen this level of youth involvement in the movement since the Obama campaign,” said Hight. “We’re not done, but we had a win.”

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Photo: Youth demonstrators are prominent among the 12,000 demonstrators against the Keystone XL Pipeline project who surrounded the White House on Nov.6, 2011. Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood/tarsandsaction.org

Super committee could gut national parks budget

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National Park Service funding could potentially be gutted if the so-called congressional super committee doesn’t find those elusive $1.3 trillion in budget cuts this month.

According to a new report released today by the National Parks Conservation Assn., a parks advocacy organization, failure by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (colloquially known as the super committee) could trigger a sequestration process that would mandate cuts in National Park Service funding by as much as 9%.

This would mean a $231 million cut to the national parks budget that is currently at $2.6 billion, said Craig Obey, senior vice president of government affairs at NPCA, in a press conference today. That would come on top of nearly $140 million in cuts made in 2011.

Overall, the National Park Service budgets are down almost $400 million from where they were 10 years ago.

“I’m watching this cut like everyone else and we’re very worried,” said Obey at the conference. “The issue with the national parks –- if you think of the budget like a tire, right now the tire has a slow leak. If we get a 9% cut, it’s a blow-out. Either way, you have a flat tire. We’re looking real soon at some tough results in the national parks.”

Those results, say the report, could include the closure of some parks, campgrounds, visitor centers and other services, the virtual elimination of seasonal rangers, a curtailment of law enforcement staff and resources for endangered species monitoring and other scientific work.

Gathered at the press conference were a group of experts concerned about the economic effects of any drop in visitors to the country’s popular national parks. Obey pointed out that the money going into the parks was a direct economic investment, returning $4 in economic benefit for every $1 spent, for a total direct annual contribution of $13.2 billion to the U.S. economy.

“I’m a Republican, a former two-term county mayor in a county that is the northern gateway to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park,” said Iliff McMahan, former mayor of Cocke County in Tennessee. “The park is a driver for economic activity in our area.”

“I implore that the lawmakers see that as an investment in the economic driver, the engine that drives that part of the U.S., and they do the right thing and keep that economic engine going.”

Obey and others noted that any cuts made now to National Park Service budgets would come mostly from basic operating budgets. More flexible accounts like construction and land acquisition have already been drastically curtailed.

John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for National Parks Conservation Assn., pointed out that, even before the super committee process, the parks were already likely to experience budget challenges for the next decade. The Budget Control Act of 2011, passed in August, set discretionary caps for spending through 2021 that, depending on how they are interpreted, would mean flat budgets for the National Park Service for the next 10 years.

“Because of the real uncontrollable costs with rent increases, utility, cost of living increases for employees, and general increased expenses, the practical effect of a flat budget is a reduction in real terms,” said Garder. “It is less money that they have to work with. So we are already looking at a challenging climate for the NPS for the next decade.”

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-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: The floor of Yosemite National Park covered in snow. Budget cuts could sharply curtail park services. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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