Are Carbon Taxes Another False Solution?

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network


Carbon taxes are emerging as a major top-down climate solution enviros would like to see come out of Congress.  Plenty of “tax carbon” signs were present in the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City last month.  Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging nations to adopt either a carbon tax, or the (failed and problematic) “cap-and-trade” model.  Cap-and-trade approaches enrich Wall Street speculators, can concentrate pollution in vulnerable communities that lack political clout, and fail to truly reduce carbon emissions, yet elevate lots of sketchy and climate-damaging false solutions from burning toxic landfill gases to running Indigenous people off of their forested lands.

Sadly, carbon tax proposals are riddled with problems as well, making it a “solution” we can’t support.  Real solutions would end corporate agriculture and dirty energy subsidies (including massive spending on imperial military adventures) and spell out policies that regulate and mandate what is actually needed to transform the agriculture, energy, materials/waste, and transportation sectors into sustainable climate solutions.  Instead, carbon taxes focus on one sector (energy) and hope that the market will choose the right solutions in the right time frame for all sectors.  It’s just as likely to elevate false solutions like nuclear power, biofuels, biomass and waste incineration.  Some proposals explicitly promote some of these false solutions.  If not structured properly, a carbon tax can also be regressive (harming the poor more).

In June 2013, we put together an Open Letter to Citizens Climate Lobby, signed by 86 organizations in 29 states and 11 countries, calling out the problems with the carbon tax legislation they’ve been pushing, which highlighted the following five points:

    1) A carbon tax will be insufficient to move the market in a relevant time frame.

Climate change is a genuine planetary emergency.  It’s already too late to prevent it, and the best we can do is minimize and brace for its impacts.  Any strategy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution needs to do so rapidly and decisively within a mandated timeframe.

The market does not know best.  A carbon tax relies on a market price to be enough to do the job in time, even though it would cover just part of the problem, and would surely set the price to low.  Setting a price on carbon does not guarantee that changes will be made in a meaningful time frame or that the changes will lead us toward clean solutions.

In 2012, Yvo de Boer, the former chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stated that we need a minimum carbon tax of 150 Euros per tonne (about $212/ton) to drive the price signals we really need.  Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) – the main advocates for a carbon tax in the U.S. – supports a $15/ton tax that increases $10/year, taking 20 years to hit the minimum level needed to drive change.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 that CCL has been supporting, starts at $20/year and rises gradually to $34.49/year after 12 years and stays there, at a level six times lower than would be effective.

This is enough for politicians, Exxon and enviros to claim they’ve done something, but woefully inadequate to actually blunt the impacts of climate change.

    2) A carbon tax elevates false solutions

By only punishing fossil fuels, a carbon tax puts nuclear power, “biomass” and waste incineration, landfill gas burning, and crop- and waste-based liquid fuels at a competitive advantage.  It even helps push “clean coal” and puts natural gas ahead of coal, ignoring the methane impacts that make it worse than coal.  We cannot count on the market to pick the clean solutions (conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage) over cheap, polluting false solutions, most of which are worse than coal for global warming.

Nuclear power: Everyone from MIT to the Union of Concerned Scientists to industry consultants to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency seems to understand that a moderate carbon tax would mean a nuclear industry windfall.  Sure, a lot of fossil fuels are used in the nuclear fuel chain, but a carbon tax doesn't fully make up for the windfall nuclear power will get as it's put at a competitive advantage with fossil fuels, appearing cheaper than coal for the first time.  A carbon tax could include language to ban new nuclear reactors, phase out existing ones, or accomplish the same by repealing the Price-Anderson Act’s nuclear accident insurance liability caps.  It won’t, though, because carbon tax advocates won’t touch the issue.  Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center admits: “The fact that a carbon tax would create a price advantage for nuclear power is regrettable, but that’s the way it is.”  Citizen Climate Lobby has rabidly pro-nuclear NASA scientist James Hansen on their advisory board and allowed him to be a keynote at their 2013 annual conference, the same year when he’s pushing nuclear power in national media.

Nuclear power is the most expensive, subsidized and slow-to-build form of power and one of the most destructive and racist.  It is a false solution that releases radioactive air and water pollution and sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels.  It chews up large amounts of land to bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.

Carbon tax advocates claim that we don’t need to worry about nuclear because it’s too expensive to go anywhere, and should be dealt with in separate policies (as if a separate effort to “fix it later” will have the support of the carbon-centric advocates).  The fact is that nuclear power is already the most heavily subsidized energy industry, enough that it’s already cost competitive with geothermal and off-shore wind.  Half of federal energy R&D went to nuclear power over the past 65 years.  The Obama administration is currently providing $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors to be built in a black community in Georgia.  Nuclear power continues to struggle economically without big subsidies and is stagnant at the moment due to temporarily cheap gas prices, but carbon tax among the backdrop of other subsidies would put nuclear back in the front seat.

Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well.  New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to allow coal plants and thousands of other boilers to start burning trash without regulation or community notification.  Carbon taxes ignore incinerators, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.  The world’s largest waste corporation, Waste Management, is poised to exploit this loophole and move from landfilling waste to sky-filling it by marketing trash fuel pellets to every boiler they can.  A carbon tax (coupled with the Clean Power Plan and EPA’s waste deregulation) will drive this climate-killing mass switch from coal to trash burning.

Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked.  “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants.  Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.

That denial is strong in carbon tax bills.

The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 outright makes grants available to biomass and biofuels that are “not sourced from food crops” (which would include burning or liquefying trees, grasses, wood waste, animal waste, trash, sewage sludge and other wastes).  Taxing fossil fuels and putting the money into energy sources worse for the climate is as misguided as it gets.

Congressman Waxman’s draft bill also has clear support for biomass.  Section 9(5) will probably subsidize biomass just as Section 201 of Boxer-Sanders does.  Section 11(b)(5) of the Waxman draft specifically exempts biomass.  Section 3 defines “covered entities” with references to 40 CFR 98, which specifically instructs to “exclude carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass” when GHGs from biomass are calculated.  This flies in the face of science.

Recent science tells us that these “biogenic” sources are not carbon neutral in any meaningful time-frame – that it takes several decades for wood burning to become just as bad as coal if trees are grown and left alone to compensate for the extra CO2 released, and centuries to approach carbon neutrality.  A 2009 study published in Science reported that measures such as a carbon tax applied to fossil but not to biogenic emissions, would result in conversion of virtually all remaining natural forests, grasslands and other ecosystems to energy crop monocultures by 2065.

Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane.  CFCs and related intensely-potent global warming gases are also released by landfills.  Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated).  True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.  Landfills are completely ignored by carbon tax proposals, except where they may be subsidized as clean alternatives, as renewable energy policies already do.

Biofuels are worse than petroleum for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.

A growing literature demonstrated that biofuels are very inefficient to produce and when full lifecycle assessments are completed, many have a carbon footprint comparable to, or worse than fossil fuels.  Because of the very large land area, soil, water and fertilizer requirements to grow crops and trees for bioenergy, most biofuels result in vast, largely unacknowledged carbon and nitrous oxide emissions, depletion of soils and water resources, biodiversity losses as well as conflicts and human rights abuses, including escalating hunger due to food price increases.  Like biomass and landfill gas, a carbon tax both implicitly and explicitly promotes these false solutions.

It’s not easy to close these “biogenic carbon” loopholes.  Carbon taxes focus on the extraction phase (coal mines, oil refineries and gas wells or distribution hubs), so that they don't have to try to measure every smokestack and tailpipe.  This isn’t so easily done with biomass and waste-based climate pollution.  Will these be treated differently so that smokestack pollution is measured?  Will trees cut be counted only when going to markets that would burn them?  What about demolition waste and other “biomass” harvested for burning?  How would a carbon tax measure the “biogenic” and fossil portions of trash incineration?  How would landfills be accounted for so that all gas (collected or leaked) is counted, without encouraging landfill gas burning for energy (which causes more gas leakage)?  How would a carbon tax ensure that organics are composted and kept out of landfills in the first place?  How to account for biofuels?  It gets impossibly complicated, even without getting into the debate over how much to subtract out “biogenic” carbon that is sucked back up in the future as if anyone can guarantee that those trees won't be chopped back down for later burning or use.

Ignoring these emissions is not acceptable.  Making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible feeds the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels, and fails to educate carbon tax advocates and the politicians they speak to.  Nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.  Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.

Even Coal and Gas Supported? 

So-called “clean coal” could be supported as some bills exempt carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) schemes that attempt to store CO2 underground infinitely.  Congressman Waxman’s draft carbon tax, as well as Congressman Van Hollen’s carbon “cap-and-trade with dividend and auctions” bill both exempt CCS.  CCS is usually coupled with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) schemes that use the CO2 to get more oil out of oil fields – oil that releases CO2 when burned.  The CO2 used to extract the oil also comes back up with the produced oil.  Some CCS sites have already shown signs of the CO2 leaking out.  CCS loopholes that enable continued coal burning (or oil extraction) have no place in a climate bill.

Even natural gas may benefit from a carbon tax, relative to coal and oil, as the carbon content is lower.  However, this doesn’t account for the methane, which is 86 to 105 times as bad as CO2 for the climate over a 20-year time frame.  Gas leaks from well to end use are extensive and cause gas to always be worse for the climate than coal.  Citizens Climate Lobby’s 2014 policy proposal recognizes this and aims to account for it, but this foresight is unlikely to make it into any bill with a  change of passage, as the gas industry is the government’s darling.

    3) A carbon tax could be regressive

A straight carbon tax would be regressive, impacting lower-income households harder than higher-income ones, as Food and Water Watch recently argued, citing a Congressional Budget Office report.  However, this flips around if the tax is returned to households in a monthly or quarterly dividend check.  Dividend checks are part of most carbon tax plans.  This would be a progressive wealth-redistributing policy that puts equal-sized checks in the hands of most U.S. residents.

One of the glaring errors in these policies is that the dividend checks would not go to all.  Millions of the most poor and vulnerable among us would be left out.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 would – after raising the costs of energy and goods on everyone – provide monthly rebate checks only to “legal residents of the United States.”  This would cause a disproportionate hardship on the nearly 12 million undocumented United States residents whose work is fundamental to our economy in important ways, from providing the food on our tables to caring for our children and elders.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill does the same and seems to exclude even more people (those lawfully here on temporary work visas, including many agricultural workers).

Environmental Justice demands that any approach to curbing emissions does not shift economic and environmental burdens onto vulnerable communities.  To their credit, Citizens Climate Lobby supports dividend checks going to all households.  How to fix this, and who will speak up about it is another question entirely.  Perhaps CCL needs to make it a talking point in their lobby days.

    4) A carbon tax fails to adequately cover all relevant sectors

A carbon tax fails to cover all critical economic sectors that are part of the problem and should be part of the solution.  Energy is a major climate culprit, but the agriculture and waste sectors need to be a major part of a climate policy solution as well.  It’s inadequate to expect that the indirect impacts on these other sectors will be enough to move them, and to do so in the proper direction.  Same goes for transportation, which is an energy sector, but also one that requires specific redirection of policy that a blunt tool like a carbon tax cannot provide.

The transportation bill annually pumps tens of billions of dollars into highways.  Known as the “highway bill,” it allocates 80% of funding for highways and auto-centered infrastructure, and 20% for transit.  Without reversing this annual allocation, how can a carbon tax truly transform our car- and truck-centric transportation system into one centered around bike-able and walkable communities and fare-free mass transit?

Same goes for the waste and materials economy.  Solutions are far too nuanced to expect a carbon tax to properly lead us to a zero waste paradigm.  In 2006, EPA estimated that provision of goods accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that provision of food accounts for another 13%, totaling 42% of emissions attributable to materials management.  Considering how EPA ignores biogenic emissions from waste incineration, underestimates GHG emissions from landfills, and didn’t have the latest science on methane, this is surely an underestimate.  Minimizing waste can reduce at least 37% of U.S. GHG emissions.  Since a carbon tax doesn’t address methane, CO2, or CFC emissions from landfills, or even the CO2 emissions from trash incinerators, municipal officials may react to a carbon tax by cutting truck trips, dropping separate recycling or composting collection to save fuel and let the waste be buried (or burned, then buried), rather than see the larger picture.

Agriculture has the most promise to transform from being the largest climate problem to the largest climate solution.  As the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, animal agriculture (to feed meat and dairy consumption) is the leading cause of global warming, rainforest destruction, land use, water use, water pollution, and species extinction, while contributing to world hunger and numerous health problems.  The film draws attention to 2006 research by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showing that the world’s livestock contribute more to global warming (18%) than the world’s entire transportation sector (13%).  It then introduces 2009 research by analysts at the World Bank Group showing that animal agriculture, viewed more holistically, is actually responsible for at least 51% of global warming!

While this 51% figure has been debated back and forth, it seems more credible than the lower figures, as it accounts for various oversights and also looks at methane’s impacts over a more relevant 20-year time horizon, rather than the 100-year figure.  At the time of the study, methane was understood to be 20-some times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 72 times over 20 years.  We now know, from more recent research, that methane is 35 times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 86 to 105 times over 20 years.  Even if the 51% figure (which the researchers say is conservative) is a bit inflated, it’s also still underestimating the true impacts of methane.

No matter how you cut it, animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming.  Because much of the impact is from methane, reducing meat and dairy consumption can have the most rapid effect on the climate.  After all, methane has a 7-8 year half-life and persists in the atmosphere for a short enough time to make a quick impact.  CO2, on the other hand, persists for over 100 years, so reductions in methane are far more important to avoid short-term global warming tipping points.

One U.N. agency, using the lower GHG estimate for animal agriculture’s impacts, stated in 2010 that: “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

Carbon tax policies, even if intended to cover methane, are likely to ignore agriculture as a sector, focusing primarily on CO2 from fossil fuel sources.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill specifically exempts animal agriculture.  A carbon tax would drive up the costs of food – most especially meat and dairy – due to higher costs of oil and of nitrogen fertilizer (which is produced with huge amounts of natural gas).  However, the true global warming impacts of agriculture will be drastically downplayed.

Just as the transportation bill puts mega-subsidies into highways each year, the farm bill does the same for corporate agribusiness.  A carbon tax that only partially impacts this sector won’t be enough to shift to the solutions we need.

Can regenerative organic farming reverse climate change?

2014 Rodale Institute research shows that we can reverse climate change with decentralized, local, no-till, organic farming using compost, cover crops and enhancing crop rotations.  These practices, known as regenerative organic farming, can sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions using widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.

Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions.

Even if modest assumptions about soil’s carbon sequestration potential are made, regenerative agriculture can easily keep annual emissions to within the desirable range necessary if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2020.

For more info on this topic, see websites on “carbon farming” here, here and here.

We must replace animal and industrial agriculture with farming practices like permaculture, biointensive, and regenerative organic farming.  It must be decentralized, with community gardens, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture becoming wide-spread.  It won’t be enough to focus on individual change (but you should still click the previous link and find a CSA near you!).  We need institutional changes to encourage all of these practices and to replace the farm bills’ big ag policies with these green solutions.  A carbon tax will help a bit, but to truly make this shift, we need to transform agriculture policies and subsidies, focusing in on the details of how to do it right.  As the Rodale report explains, it takes all of the pieces, not just some, for soils to become the carbon sinks we need them to be.

Say what we want!

Blunt economic instruments won’t get us where we need to go.  We need to be blunt about what we want, and not expect “invisible hands” of the marketplace to move us to wind and solar rather than nuclear and incinerators, for example.  A real climate policy would mandate drastic (at least 75%) reductions in demand through energy conservation and efficiency throughout the economy, including a reversal in transportation priorities.  It would mandate that the rest of our energy needs be met by solar, wind and energy storage.  It would set a national zero waste policy.  The Farm Bill would become an engine for a climate-friendly regenerative organic agriculture system.  It would shift the $74 billion in annual dirty energy subsidies, and most of the gigantic military budget into making these solutions possible.  Finally, it would radically change our foreign policy from an imperial war-based conquest for our “economic interests” into one of reparations and support for other countries to follow this path to clean solutions.  …and then I woke up:

    5) Better solutions are more politically realistic

“Political realism” is not usually part of my vocabulary.  It’s the term usually used by mainstream environmental groups to justify why they’re supporting rather compromised legislation – because, after all, the corporate controlled state or national legislators simply aren’t ready to pass something good, so we have to start with something not-so-good because it’s the best we can get.  The prominent environmental leader, David Brower, responded to this best:

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders.  Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause.  If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way.  We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.” – David Brower

We must recognize that a carbon tax is a non-starter, politically – though this can eventually change and is slowly shifting.  Near-term, however, we’re not talking about something that can pass Congress.  Even a filthy cap-and-trade bill that we, Greenpeace, Dr. James Hanson and others called “more harm than good,” couldn’t pass in 2009 when foundations poured about $1 Billion into big enviro groups to push it.  …and that was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Tea Party takeover of Congress and other legal decisions that cemented corporate control over the federal government.

So, the choice is between one politically unrealistic solution and the others that we propose, which wouldn’t carry the several problems that a carbon tax would.  In 2009, a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law almost passed Congress, and similar laws have been passed in over 30 states.  That is far more politically viable than any tax marketed as a “fee” – especially where any progressive dividend would sadly be red-baited for its wealth redistributing aspects.

RPS policies are mandates for utilities to phase in a certain percentage of “renewable” energy in their mix.  While these aren’t defined cleanly like they should be, they still mandate a shift to a new electricity mix with specified technologies in a clear time frame.  The legislative structure and political momentum is there.  The main problem is ensuring that the concept of “renewable” is defined cleanly, being limited to non-burn technologies, prioritizing conservation, efficiency, solar, wind and energy storage.  Most state RPS laws (and federal bills) consider burning trash, biomass and landfill gas to be renewable.  Some get worse, counting “advanced” nuclear power, or the burning of coal (in gasification plants), waste coal, coal mine methane or tires.  These bad precedents in state laws have been pushed into federal bills and are likely to be redefined as “Clean Energy” Portfolio Standards so that nuclear power and coal mine methane is included.

…Which brings us to the problem with doing anything at the federal level.  Corporations control our government.  They do this at all levels, but getting meaningful policy passed without major compromises is only possible at the local level – and sometimes at state levels, but they’re pretty corporate controlled, too.  It’s critical to recognize that people power is strongest at the local level, and that social change comes from the bottom up.  That’s why we see success rates in our grassroots base ranging from 60 to 99%, depending on which industry is being fought, whether it be coal or gas-fired power plants, nuclear reactors, landfills or incinerators.

It’s unreasonable to expect top-down major national legislation that isn’t so horribly compromised that it begs the question of whether it’ll make any difference or do more harm than good.  That’s why we need to be pushing for clean election reforms at all levels of government.  It’s also why the movement and its funders need to be putting more energy into the grassroots, where we’re decimating entire industry sectors one community at a time, rather than into top-down strategies that expect major changes out of a corporate-puppet Congress.

As our open letter to CCL stated last year: “We must unshackle our democracy from corporate control and political bribery before we can achieve success.  Meanwhile, we must continue to build our power and advance the policies and projects from the community, municipal, state and regional levels, which is what grassroots organizing has been doing for decades: shutting down and preventing polluting facilities from coming online at the source while creating vibrant real solutions right at the community level.”

­­­

Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities. 

Hawaii's Only Coal-fired Power Plant May Switch to Biomass

- by Duane Shimgawa, August  28, 2014,  Pacific Business News

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"254","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"line-height: 20.6719989776611px; width: 211px; height: 142px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Cleanislands.com"}}]]The only coal-fired power plant in Hawaii, which is the single largest generating plant on Oahu, is under financial stress because there is no financial reserve, according to the Hawaiian Electric Co.'s new energy plan released this week.

Hawaiian Electric is also asking AES Hawaiito convert some of the energy being produced at the plant in Campbell Industrial Park to biomass from coal

Given the potential financial impact of an interruption of service associated with a financial default of AES Hawaii, HECO said it has been negotiating in good faith with the company to explore the possibility of an amendment to the power purchase agreement that would make financial sense to AES Hawaii and ratepayers.

As part of the ongoing negotiations for the change in the power purchase agreement, the state’s largest electric utility has asked AES Hawaii to convert some or all of the energy produced at the facility from coal to biomass, possibly from black pellets made from wood.

2014: The Year of the Smokestack Smackdown [Energy Justice Now, August 2014]

Prepare yourself for the August issue of Energy Justice Network's new publication, Energy Justice Now!

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"231","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"274","style":"width: 333px; height: 203px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"450"}}]]- "2014 a Banner Year for Victories"

- "Derailing NYC Trash Train in Chester, PA"

- "Vermont Yankee: Out of the Fission and Into the Fire?"

...and more!!!

Please share the August 2014 issue of Energy Justice Now with your friends, colleagues, neighbors, media, and elected officials!

Subscribe to monthly email issues of Energy Justice Now here.

July issue of Energy Justice Now: Building Movement Solidarity

Are you ready for the July issue of Energy Justice Network's new publication, Energy Justice Now?!
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"185","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"120","style":"width: 355px; float: left; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; height: 170px;","width":"250"}}]]-"Why Solidarity is Needed More Than Ever between Coal, Gas and Incinerator Fighters"
 
 
 
...and more!!!
 
Please share the July 2014 issue of Energy Justice Now with your friends, colleagues, neighbors, media, and elected officials!
 
Subscribe to monthly email issues of Energy Justice Now here.

The Ten Commandments of Movement Solidarity


[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"215","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"367","style":"width: 277px; height: 212px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;","width":"480"}}]]After a decade of grassroots advocacy, my personal belief is that the greatest obstacle to positive change in the world isn’t corporations, the government, or the 1%, but lack of movement solidarity.

And no, I’m not pretending to be some modern day Moses bringing the divine truths down from the mountain. I’m just someone who has participated in the entire spectrum of the environmental movement — from mainstream to “radical,” on both coasts — who has witnessed a lot of unnecessary failures over the years, in large part because people can’t figure out how to work together.

Since my work these days focuses on the health and environmental impacts of dirty energy —  nuclear, fossil fuels, and biomass/trash incineration — most of the specific examples I give in this article will come from that realm. However, chances are the “Ten Commandments of Solidarity” can also apply to your movement, whatever it is…unless it’s evil. In which case, it won’t, so don’t bother.

Now, I’ll admit that limiting this list to just ten points is arbitrary, so if you’ve got other “commandments,” please post them in the comments, where I’ll ignore them…Just kidding, I’ll read and carefully consider them, because that’s what solidarity looks like.

1. Thy movement shalt not have ambiguous goals

Whatever your movement, even if you can’t figure out exactly what you want, you can almost guarantee that your opposition can. For instance, a corporation that logs forests typically wants to cut down as many trees as it can and sell them for as high a profit as possible, for as long as is feasible. Its goals are crystal freaking clear — unlike the streams it silts up in pursuit of the dollar.

Unfortunately, Big Timber’s counterpart, the forest protection movement, doesn’t have the same clarity of purpose. Instead of these organizations banding together to achieve a concrete goal, such as passing a Congressional bill to protect National Forests, they have split off on literally hundreds of different missions under the banner of forest protection — including pushing for more logging.

This isn’t to say that simply declaring a specific goal, like banning private land clearcutting, means it will happen. In many cases, especially for some of the bolder goals, it might never. But what many — most? — forest protection groups have done is thrown in the towel before they even set foot in the ring. While it’s true that you can fight the good fight and still get knocked out, you can damn well guarantee defeat if you throw the fight before the bell is even rung.

In my opinion there’s one way, and one way only, to go about advocacy of any sort. And no one has explained it better than David Brower, the archdruid himself: “Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.”

Suffice it to say, were Brower alive today, he’d have some, um, suggestions for the ever-shifting and seemingly arbitrary goals of the 21st century’s forest protection movement.

2. Thou shalt not contradict movement goals

A movement is only as powerful as its message. In fact, messaging is pretty much the only tool the grassroots has to enact change. When speaking to the media, commenting on policy, or protesting in the streets, make sure you aren’t advocating for anything that would stand in the way of your movement reaching its ultimate goals.

For instance, if your organization opposes biomass power plants because of their impacts on public health from air pollution, you can’t support slightly smaller and/or barely more efficient biomass facilities with even less effective pollution controls without invalidating your main talking point. 

Which isn’t to say that you can’t have your priorities straight and focus on the biggest, most conspicuous 50-megawatt facilities and not devote many resources to, say, opposing a college’s 2-megawatt combined-heat-and-power facility. But, actually endorsing one of these incinerators not only contradicts your public health concerns, but makes the work of those in the movement who are fighting those facilities that much harder.

3. Thou shalt not confuse partial agreement with solidarity

It may seem easy to tell the difference between organizations and individuals who support your movement and those who do not, but it’s a common mistake within the grassroots and a major reason for a given movement’s seemingly inevitable fragmentation.

While it’d be nice to take the “big tent” approach and invite anyone claiming to be an ally into a pivotal role in your movement, the reality is that’s one of the best ways to ensure its demise. On the surface, they may appear to support all of your movement’s goals, but a deeper look may reveal otherwise. For instance, not everyone who opposes a particular nuclear power plant is necessarily against the entire concept of nuclear energy. While they may share the anti-nuclear movement’s goal of shutting down one specific facility, a closer look may reveal them to merely be in favor of a more technologically-advanced nuclear reactor.  

This isn’t to say you can’t have friendly and respectful working relationships with those entities or individuals whose goals mostly, or even partially, overlap. But you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you actually expect them to have solidarity with your movement. A difference of opinion doesn’t always mean they are weak-willed or in the pocket of industry, but it usually does mean they are coming from a different place, and therefore it’s unlikely for any amount of sweet-talking or brow-beating to change their mind. Solidarity in the anti-nuke movement can only be achieved by those who are, well, anti-nuke. Opposing one facility while supporting another is still pro-nuke. 

Of course, if they do reconsider their position, you can leave the past in the past and welcome them with open arms. But letting them in before they recant just weakens the movement. The best way to achieve movement solidarity is by creating it slowly but surely, building a strong foundation upon which to expand — instead of on shifting sands that can topple the entire structure.   

4. Thou shalt not sidestep calls to action

If someone in your movement has an initiative, be it a rally, a call-in day to elected officials, or even an online petition, even if it’s not your favorite thing in the world, help them out with it at least a little bit. If you have constructive criticism to offer in regards to their project, or even have concerns that it doesn’t align with movement goals, then privately speak to them about the issue. But don’t shun them out of disagreement, or because it’s a bit of a hassle, as that will only foster hurt feelings, and be the beginning (or widening) of a rift in the movement.

If you’re jazzed about the proposal, then of course, offer as much support and resources as you can. But even if you’re lukewarm or just don’t have the means, it literally only takes a few minutes to spread the word via email or social media. Even if doing so doesn’t make or break the initiative (it might), rest assured that your ally will make note of your support, and keep your efforts in mind in the future.

This quid pro quo support of organizations is the currency of grassroots movements. Therefore, the movement aside, it’s in your own best interest to make sure your credit’s good.

5. Thou shalt not respond emotionally to criticism

The only thing more important than criticism from inside a movement is how you respond to it. Whether it’s a well thought out, point-by-point refutation or just a knee-jerk outburst from someone having a bad day, sit with the information — not the tone — before responding to it, so as to filter out the hurt and/or anger.

No matter what they’ve said, if they are a fellow movement member, chances are it’s not important enough to ruin your working relationship over. Many times, in fact, it’s simply a misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly. But even if it’s not, responding in anger will only make the situation worse, guaranteed.

Criticism from outside the movement is another matter entirely, as in that case it’s coming from those who don’t share your mission, such as a gas industry lackey beating up on your anti-fracking stance. If it’s simply verbal abuse without any specific points being addressed, then feel free to ignore it. But if there is actually a coherent argument, it can be seen as a sign of weakness to ignore it entirely, especially if it’s done on a public forum.

If you choose to respond to an external critique, make certain you do so calmly and without malice, as you never know who might be watching the interaction. Don’t think of it as an attack you need to defend yourself against, think of it as an opportunity to educate the public on a particular point, and a model as how to respond to the opposition.

6. Thou shalt not ignore internal conflicts

For those of us who have bought into the whole evolution concept, we believe that modern day humans are descended from an ape ancestor. And while the Great Apes family is generally a social one, it is also one prone to frequent conflict and strife. Typically, these conflicts don’t end in bloodshed, but the disturbances are often enough to tear the social fabric.

In a movement, conflicts will always come up, and how they are dealt with by other members of the movement can often determine how much of a problem it will ultimately become. If the conflict is between individuals, it’s not always necessary to take a side, but it’s in the movement’s best interest for someone to intervene before things get out of hand.

It’s easy to step aside as tempers flare and mud is slung by telling yourself it’s a personal conflict and not your place to get involved. But if there’s turmoil inside your movement, guess what? You’re already involved. To decide not to act is taking action — it’s deciding to allow the fighting to get worse.

7. Thou shalt not turn a blind eye to attacks

If the work or character of fellow movement members is attacked from the outside, you have a duty to come to their aid. This doesn’t mean you need to respond to negativity with more negativity, nor does it mean you have to defend everything this person has ever said or done, but at the very least get involved in the discussion.

One unparried attack may signal weakness to the opposition which, like a predator searching for the easy kill, might embolden them enough to intensify the onslaught — and you just might be their next target.  

 8. Thou shalt not abuse thy power

Most of the interactions between grassroots movement members happen on a level playing field, where no one is really in charge of anyone else. But, in the case of managing someone as an employee or volunteer, a power dynamic comes into play.

The key thing is fairly obvious: make the best use of your (probably underpaid or unpaid) worker by being a good boss or manager. This means being on top of your organization’s priorities and maximizing the use of your worker’s time. Do your best to provide clear direction (which can include constructive criticism) while offering support, without bottlenecking their work.

If you have a legitimate and professional reason to fire this person, realize that there are very few people out there willing to devote themselves to the often thankless and undercompensated (or uncompensated) work of an advocate, and therefore — unless you honestly believe the person does more harm than good — it’s your responsibility to the movement to help them land on their feet (think severance pay and a recommendation) so they can smoothly make the transition to another role in the movement.

Nonprofit workers burn out very quickly and a lot of it has to do with poor management. If you’re not good at being in charge, there are many resources out there to help you learn how to get better. And if you’re not willing to improve, for the good of the movement, you might want to think about stepping down, so someone who can handle the responsibility can take the reins.

9. Thou shalt not align thy movement with a political party

One political party may be more of an obvious ally to your movement than another and it may be tempting to hitch yourself to their wagon. But while one party may be more likely to support your cause, such as the Democratic Party and the dirty energy resistance, chances are there are many, many examples of them harming your cause, like the left’s support for dirty biomass/trash incineration.   

The greatest risk of a movement backing a political party or candidate is its disinclination to offer criticism when they do wrong. As we’ve seen with President Barack Obama, blind endorsement by the environmental movement has resulted in him taking its support for granted and given him the go ahead to start backsliding on his promises in regards to climate change.

Loudly and publicly applauding a politician’s good vote or strong policy should be encouraged, so long as you’re also critiquing the bad votes and weak policy.

10. Thou shalt not avoid personal relationships

A movement isn’t just about a cause, like replacing industrial-scale dirty energy with distributed clean energy, it’s about people. In our age of internet activism, it’s vital to take opportunities to connect with movement members as living, breathing creatures. Take some time to have some in-person meetings (if you’re far away from each other, go to a conference), share a meal or a beverage, or go on a hike together.

Nothing bonds a movement together tighter than personal relationships — you’re much more likely to do what it takes to achieve solidarity with an actual human being you care about than a disembodied avatar on the other side of a screen. 

Energy Justice Now - A Forum for the Dirty Energy Resistance [June 2014]

Check out the inaugural June 2014 issue of Energy Justice Network's new publication, Energy Justice Now!
 
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In the June issue of Energy Justice Now (a forum for the dirty energy resistance):
 
 
 
 
...and more!!!
 
Please share the June 2014 issue of Energy Justice Now with your friends, colleagues, and neighbors!
 
Subscribe to monthly email issues of Energy Justice Now here.

On the Dirty Energy Policy Front

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"207","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 160px; height: 156px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;"}}]]- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

While Energy Justice Network's work is mainly focused on helping you win grassroots victories, we've had to weigh in on some state and national policies that would have major consequences for how many bad ideas need to be fought. Misguided policies aiming to limit coal or climate pollution continue to push (fracked) gas and biomass/waste incineration as false solutions. We encourage you to look over some of the well-documented comments we put together and to borrow from them in your own work, as needed. 

EPA's CO2 Rule for New Fossil Fuel Power Plants: thank you to the nearly 600 of you who responded to our action alert in May, telling EPA that loopholes for "clean coal" / carbon sequestration, natural gas, biomass and waste incineration are unacceptable! 

Department of Energy Subsidies for Incinerators: a Solyndra-related program to provide billions in loan guarantees to renewable energy and energy efficiency would subsidize trash and biomass incinerators and biofuels, even though the program is required to fund only technologies that reduce greenhouse gases. These technologies are among the worst greenhouse gas emitters! Within just six days, over the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, we pulled together 131 groups on a sign-on letter challenging this, including about 100 grassroots or state/regional groups from 27 states plus DC and Puerto Rico as well as about 30 national / international groups, including some of the big greens: Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA and Sierra Club.

COMING UP: EPA's CO2 Rule for Existing Fossil Fuel Power Plants: this rule just came out this week, and is riddled with loopholes as we expected. We're concerned that this rule does far too little (nearly 2/3rds of the reductions required by 2020 over 2005 emissions levels were already accomplished without any rule!), and that it could do more harm than good by encouraging a switch from coal to fuels more polluting than coal for the climate, like natural gas and biomass/waste incineration. Biomass is 50% worse than coal for the climate; trash incineration 2.5 times worse.

The plan also would keep open risky and dangerous old nuclear power plants that the industry recently decided it wants to close, and subsidize the building of new reactors, sucking up the money we need for a genuine transition to clean energy. Coal is already on the decline without a CO2 rule due to activism and geology (we've used much of it up and the remainder is getting too expensive to extract). This rule is so weak that it'll do less than what would happen anyway, but could make things worse if we don't beat down these false solutions.

EPA's Waste-to-Fuels (WTF) Deregulation: We're working with Earthjustice and the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) to figure out how to stop this dreadful trend to redefine wastes into unregulated "fuels" that can be burned in any of about one million boilers in the nation's industries, schools, hospitals and other businesses.

In the States: We've commented and testified on several flawed energy and waste bills in Maryland that would encourage biomass and waste incineration, none of which passed by the end of this year's session. We've also recently commented on Maryland's incinerator-friendly draft Zero Waste Plan and filed comments on New York's new Energy Plan.  Feel free to borrow from our comments in your own advocacy.  We're also working with the Washington, DC City Council to ban styrofoam and adopt a zero waste plan that would start curbside composting, make electronic waste recycling more responsible, and end the city's use of incinerators.

Call for Submissions: Energy Justice Now

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"185","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"120","style":"width: 250px; height: 120px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;","width":"250"}}]]In June 2014, Energy Justice Network will be launching Energy Justice Now — a first-of-its kind publication reporting on the entire spectrum of the dirty energy resistance and highlighting the voices of community organizers battling fossil fuels, nuclear power, and biomass and trash incineration from sea to shining sea. 

We are accepting submissions (200-1,000 words) on any topic relevant to dirty energy — nuclear, gas, coal, oil, biomass/trash — with priority given to original content (we also accept reprints) that is national in scope and addresses more than one source of energy. 

We also also accepting photos, graphics, memes, illustrations, and cartoons revelant to the movement.

Please send submissions or queries to Josh [at] EnergyJustice [dot] net. 

Since 1999, Energy Justice Network has worked with communities across the U.S. to oppose every kind of dirty energy facility — from coal and natural-gas fired plants, to nuclear reactors, to biomass and trash incinerators — to protect human health and the natural world that keeps us alive.

Stay tuned for June 2014 and the birth of Energy Justice Now — because clean energy can’t come out of a smokestack!

In solidarity,

Mike Ewall, Josh Schlossberg, Rachel Smolker, and Samantha Chirillo

Editors, Energy Justice Now

Welcome to Energy Justice Now!

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"185","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"120","style":"width: 250px; height: 120px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;","width":"250"}}]]Welcome to Energy Justice Now, Energy Justice Network's first monthly newsletter!

Energy Justice Now will provide critical reporting on the entire spectrum of the dirty energy resistance, highlighting the voices of community organizers battling fossil fuels, nuclear power, and biomass and waste incineration from sea to shining sea. We are accepting submissions at niaby [at] energyjustice [dot] net.

Some of you are on our email discussion lists while others may not have heard from us in years. We're happy to now be at a point where we can engage and support more people, and let you all know what we're doing.

Energy Justice Network exists to build, support and network grassroots community organizations fighting dirty and unnecessary energy and waste industry facilities. We've helped communities win victories against coal and gas-fired power plants, incinerators of every sort (trash, 'biomass,' tires, poultry waste, sewage sludge, medical waste...), landfills, fracking, pipelines, refineries, ethanol biorefineries, nuclear facilities and more.

Our approach includes connecting people fighting similar industries so that they're helping one another as a network, rather than our trying to only provide top-down support. Through network-building, we help bring people from a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mindset to a Not in Anyone's Backyard (NIABY) approach toward dirty technologies for which clean alternatives exist.

In 2006, we pulled together the nation's first and only grassroots "No New Coal Plants" network, contributing to the defeat of 85% of 200+ coal power plant proposals. We also brought together a national grassroots movement against "biomass" incinerators (burning trees, wood waste, poultry waste and more), and saw 45 proposals for biomass and other waste incinerators defeated within our network just since 2010. We hope to do the same soon for those fighting the hundreds of gas-fired power plants now proposed. Without the big money other groups have to bring people together for national conferences, we've connected people via email discussion lists and conference calls.

Our work focuses on providing tools grassroots community activists need to win. This includes providing strategy and organizing advice, research support, information of many sorts (on problems with technologies and fuels, corporate track records, relevant public policies...), speaking/training, local environmental ordinances, mapping tools, connecting student and community activists, and much more. For more info, see our website for our history, accomplishments and to learn about the services we provide.