Why Columbus needs to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050

This article appeared in the July 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

On June 1, Donald Trump stunned the world by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Reaction was sharp and swift. Twelve states, more than 200 colleges and universities, and more than 1,000 businesses (including two dozen Fortune 500 companies) have pledged to honor the goals of the Paris accord whether Trump is on board or not.

Also committing to the Paris goal of reducing carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 are almost 300 cities in the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, including Athens, Bexley, Cleveland, Columbus, Gambier, Lakewood and Toledo in Ohio.

Of those, 30 cities – including Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Madison, Wis. Rochester, Minn. and most recently Pittsburgh — have gone further by committing to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2050 or earlier.

Sierra Club Central Ohio Group urges the city of Columbus to join its peer cities in committing to 100 percent renewable energy. Science tells us that climate change is real, caused by human activity and poses an imminent threat to civilization and all life on earth. We have the solutions, but the window of opportunity to implement them is starting to close. We must act now.

Columbus has taken several positive steps to address climate change. Initiatives include:

  • The GreenSpot program that encourages businesses to save energy, reduce waste and promote green transportation.
  • The Columbus Region Energy Fund to help businesses and nonprofits improve energy efficiency.
  • The Green Fleet Action Plan to reduce the carbon footprint of city vehicles and maintenance.
  • Blueprint Columbus, which uses green solutions to mitigate stormwater runoff.
  • Branch Out Columbus, the goal of which is to plant 300,000 trees by 2020.

Columbus has also received a Smart Cities grant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through modernizing the grid, promoting electric vehicles and boosting the charging infrastructure. And on June 9, Mayor Ginther signed on to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda.

All of these things are great steps forward, and we want to recognize the good things the city is doing. But it is not enough. Columbus can’t just enact green programs; we need to become a national leader on climate.

The Paris Agreement that the city has now signed has a stated goal of holding global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius and no more than 2 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists have said is the highest we can go and still have a chance of an inhabitable climate.

However, if you add up all the pledges that every country has made under the Paris Agreement, that doesn’t get us to 1.5 degrees. It gets us to about 3 degrees Celsius, which is better than 5 degrees if we do nothing, but not good enough.

We have to do more than what the United States pledged under the Paris Agreement. Science is telling us that we must reduce emissions to zero by 2050.

In other words, we must transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Some may think transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is impossible. But that is not the case. Consider these facts:

  • $58.6 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2016.
  • Enough solar energy reaches the Earth every hour to fill the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.
  • The cost of solar power has fallen from $79 per watt in 1976 to 41 cents per watt in 2016 – a staggering drop of 99.2 percent.
  • Wind generates enough energy to supply worldwide electricity consumption 40 times over.
  • The cost of wind power has fallen from 55 cents per kilowatt hour in 1980 to 2.5 cents in 2013 – a drop of over 95 percent.
  • The current fastest-growing job in the United States is wind turbine service technician.
  • The cost of lithium ion battery storage has fallen from $1500 per kilowatt hour in 2006 to $273 in 2016, a drop of 80 percent.
  • Renewables accounted for 90 percent of new electricity generation in 2015.

So the solutions are at hand, and adopting a target of 100 percent renewable energy community wide is within our reach.

100 percent renewable energy would also improve the health and well-being of the people of Columbus. According to the Columbus Department of Public Health, climate change will bring more extreme heat, which results in poorer air quality. This increases the number of people diagnosed with asthma and at risk of asthma attack.

Stronger, more frequent and more severe storms will increase chances of injury and death in a natural disaster. Warmer temperatures and flooding also increase the risk of diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and even Dengue fever.

Hardest hit will be the most vulnerable populations: the poor, very old and very young; those with mental or physical handicaps; and those with chronic health conditions. In other words, the people suffering most from infant mortality in our community will also be most affected by climate change. We must keep that from happening.

Finally, it is our duty to act. Although climate change is an international issue, we unfortunately have a federal government that has abdicated its responsibility to solve this problem.

In that vacuum, cities must step up. Cities account for 76 percent of carbon emissions from energy use. More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, with more than two-thirds projected by 2050. Columbus is now the largest city in Ohio with almost 1 million people, but is projected to have up to 3 million by 2050.

All of these reasons are why 30 cities have passed legislation committing to 100 percent renewable energy. In addition, 90 mayors have pledged to support a vision of 100 percent clean and renewable energy in their cities, towns, and communities and across the country.

Columbus is well-positioned to join these forward-thinking cities. Besides the green programs we already have, the city is also home to several businesses that have a 100 percent renewable energy policy, such as Ikea, Anheuser-Busch and BMW Financial Services. A 100 percent green portfolio would attract more future-oriented businesses to locate here.

As a community, we can come together and deal with the climate crisis. The Department of Defense calls climate change a national security threat, but within this crisis is also an opportunity: to make our city stronger, healthier and more vibrant than ever before.

For all these reasons, we urge city leaders in Columbus to commit to getting 100 percent of our community’s energy from clean, non-polluting and renewable sources by 2050 or sooner.

Letter to the editor

On June 1, Donald Trump stunned the world by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Reaction was sharp and swift. Twelve states, more than 200 colleges and universities, and more than 1,000 businesses (including two dozen Fortune 500 companies) pledged to honor the goals of the Paris accord whether Trump is on board or not.

Also committing to the Paris goal of reducing carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 were hundreds of cities in the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda. However, Columbus was not immediately one of those cities, so on June 2, I submitted a letter to the editor of the Columbus Dispatch urging the city not only to join those upholding the Paris, but also to join 30 other cities committing to 100 percent renewable energy community-wide by 2050.

My letter was published with a similar letter by Kevin Truitt on June 8.  On June 9, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther announced he was joining the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda to support the Paris Agreement.

Here is the text of my letter:

To the Editor:

I listened with dread Thursday when President Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. This breakthough accord was the first time 195 countries had come together to deal with global carbon emissions that are destabilizing the climate.

At the time, no one knew if so many countries could come to agreement. I was one of tens of thousands of citizens who traveled to Paris for the 2015 climate summit to show my support. Although initial commitments under the Paris accord are not enough, it is a good start with mechanisms for nations to review and increase their pledges every five years.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement makes no sense. It will result in fewer jobs and more pollution. It will boost carbon emissions just when the earth’s climate is at a tipping point. And it positions China and the EU to take over world energy leadership from the United States.

Fortunately, Trump’s short-sightedness has galvanized renewed climate action. Four governors, 82 university presidents, 100 CEOs, and 180 mayors have formed a climate alliance that will submit plans to the United Nations for meeting U.S. emissions reduction targets.

So far Ohio leaders have held back, according to your article “Response to Trump’s Paris accord withdrawal mostly muted in Ohio” (6/2/17). They should join this alliance. The state could jump start thousands of good-paying clean energy jobs, while the city could showcase what it’s already doing to lower carbon emissions on the world stage.

In addition, Columbus should join Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and 27 other U.S. cities in committing to a 100% renewable energy portfolio.

We don’t need Trump to fight climate change. We can – and must – do that ourselves.

Cathy Cowan Becker

Grove City

A simple public records request

As most of my friends know, I am currently working on a master’s in public administration at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. One of my classes was PUB 6010 Legal Environment of Public Affairs. As part of that class, I was asked to submit a public records request to an agency.

Flag Road leading into Oceti Sakowin camp. The flags of 300 tribal nations line this road.

Flag Road leading into Oceti Sakowin camp.

Given that I had recently visited Standing Rock, I decided to submit a request on February 3 to the Ohio State Highway Patrol for all records pertaining to the deployment of 37 state troopers to North Dakota to assist with security regarding protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation from October 29, 2016, to November 15, 2016.

When a public records request is denied, it’s usually on the grounds that it is too broad. I didn’t think that would apply to my request, which concerned 37 specific officers deployed to a specific location on specific dates. Surely they could produce the records pertaining to that deployment.

Riot Police manhandle peaceful water protectors praying near DAPL construction and desecrated sacred sites on October 22, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

On March 17, I received a response from P.R. Casey IV, associate legal counsel and public records manager for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, denying my request on the grounds that it was too broad. He said I had to ask for specific records rather than all records related to the deployment. This was difficult without knowing what specific records they had.

The denial put me in good company: Public records requests from both the Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer had been denied as well. So I called Randy Ludlow, the Dispatch reporter who had filed their request for copies of any use of force reports during the deployment.

I asked if the Dispatch was going to take legal action on their denial. Ludlow said probably yes, so I asked if I could join the case. To that he said no, but he told me about a new procedure to file a complaint about the denial of a public records request through the Court of Claims. After hanging up, I looked up the site and filed a complaint that day, along with the filing fee of $25.

Court of Claims

Within a week, I got a letter from the court saying they were accepting my complaint and referring it for mediation. I then got another letter stating that two attorneys with the attorney general’s office were filing as legal counsel for the state police. Then I got a message from an attorney at the Court of Claims wanting to have a pre-mediation conference.

Ohio state troopers at a protest near Turtle Hill near the Standing Rock reservation on November 2, 2016. By Conor Handley and downloaded by Ohio state police.

All of this freaked me out a little bit, so I did some more research. I found that the large newspapers in the state are represented by attorneys for the Ohio Newspaper Guild. I found names for two attorneys who work on public records law at a high-priced law firm in Cleveland.

On a lark I decided to call one. I was surprised when he picked up on the first ring – I had expected to reach a receptionist or an answering machine. But since he did, I explained the situation and asked his advice. He told me that I couldn’t afford to hire his law firm, but if I would send him an outline of the case, he would take a look and offer some quick thoughts. I was pretty amazed, but I sent him an email the next day, and he responded the day after that.

The attorney’s advice was excellent: Read the Ohio Sunshine Manual, get a book on how to make public records requests, and check out the complaint that the Cincinnati Enquirer had filed in the Court of Claims, which was pretty far along.

I started with the Enquirer case, which was a gold mine. The Enquirer had asked for:

  1. The names and ranks of the 37 officers sent to North Dakota under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) agreement between the two states
  2. All communication issued or received by the highway patrol regarding the deployment
  3. Any documents that outline the actual EMAC agreement between Ohio and North Dakota
  4. Any highway patrol documents that govern EMAC agreements.

All of these requests were denied for various reasons: 1, because of concerns for the safety of the officers; 2, as overly broad (it was the same request I made and denied for the same reasons); 3, because of security concerns; and 4, because they didn’t have such a document.

The Enquirer case then went to mediation, which failed. At that point the case was assigned to a “special master” named Jeffrey W. Clark to hold a formal legal hearing, then issue a report and recommendation. Clark began by ordering the attorneys for the state to submit a response to the Enquirer’s public records request explaining in detail why they were denying it.

Why the denial

A photo taken by Ohio state police during a protest at Turtle Hill near the Standing Rock reservation. Via Muckrock.

Within two weeks, the state attorneys filed an 84-page document consisting of 19 pages of legal arguments and 65 pages of exhibits, including an affidavit from a commanding officer for the Ohio state police and pages upon pages of what they said were threats to the safety of police officers on social media, including doxxing one North Dakota officer.

The agency’s main reasons for denying the public records request were 1) they didn’t want the identity of the Ohio state police officers known because they were worried about their personal safety, and 2) they cited a pipeline about to be constructed in Ohio and said they don’t want to divulge police strategy because they may want to use that same strategy in case of protests in Ohio.

A woman holds up a feather in front of a line of riot police on November 1, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

Regarding their first reason for not producing the records of what Ohio state police did at Standing Rock, I thought they were far too concerned about police safety with very little concern for the safety of water protectors. In all the protests I watched online and heard about through social media, I did not see one single case of a protester carrying a weapon. Instead, I saw that a 19-year-old girl from New York City got her arm blown apart by a concussion grenade, an 18-year-old Sioux girl had her arm broken by police, another Sioux woman lost her eye to concussion grenades, while others were attacked by police dogs badly handled by private security traced to an Ohio kennel through a logo clearly visible on their truck and not licensed in North Dakota.

Remaining in prayer as the militarized police force moves in on the water protectors on Hwy. 1806 on November 1, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

More than 100 were arrested at one raid where they were pulled at gunpoint out of a sweat lodge and rounded up at a camp. They were strip searched, had numbers written on their arms, and held in dog kennels before being charged with crimes completely out of proportion to anything they actually did. Most had little money for representation and were railroaded through a system that was stacked against them. In one case, a protester who was hurt badly enough to be hospitalized was shackled to a bed and not allowed to contact his family for weeks. In another, a protester talked an oil worker who had come into camp with a gun into giving up his weapon with no one hurt, yet the protester, not the oil worker, was charged with a felony.

Throughout all of this, the Morton County, N.D., sheriff’s department brazenly lied to the public about events when video easily proved they were lying, yet for months the media reported what the North Dakota police said as the truth while not even talking to protesters. Few journalists actually visited the camps and saw the protests for themselves, and one who did, Amy Goodman, was herself arrested and charged with felony rioting before the judge threw the case out of court.

Had online outlets like Unicorn Riot and TYT Politics, along with citizen livestreamers like Kevin Gilbertt, Johnny Dangers, and Ed Higgins not been there to document events, we would have no idea what really happened, and the Sioux would have been crushed with little fanfare – all because they wanted to protect their water supply from a pipeline that had been rerouted after people in mostly white Bismarck complained about it running next to their town’s water.

All that said – apparently one police officer from North Dakota did have his identity outed on social media (though I never saw it, and I paid a lot of attention to this issue) and felt his safety was threatened. On that basis, I decided to reiterate that identifying information about the Ohio officers could be redacted from any documents released to me. I figured that would be a show of good will and maybe make them more willing to release documents.

A photo taken by Ohio state police deployed to assist with security at the pipeline protests at Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Click to enlarge. Via Muckrock

Regarding the second main reason for denying the request – that a pipeline being constructed in Ohio and they don’t want to divulge police strategy because they want to use that same strategy in case of protests here — this was the security exemption they kept claiming for not releasing the records. They don’t want us to know what Ohio state troopers did at Standing Rock because they want to be able to do the same things in case of pipeline protests in Ohio.

The pipeline under construction they were likely referring to is Rover, which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the same company that owns Dakota Access, and is slated to go across 18 counties in the state. Construction of the pipeline has begun, and already the state has fined ETP $431,000 for 18 violations of the Clean Water Act, including a spill of millions of gallons of drilling muck that destroyed a Category 3 wetland (the highest quality) in Stark County.

EMAC Agreement

Apparently Clark, the special master in the Enquirer case, was as dissatisfied as I was with the state’s reasons for not releasing public documents regarding the state troopers’ deployment to Standing Rock. On March 8, he ordered the state to send him a copy of the EMAC agreement between Ohio and North Dakota under seal within five days so he could decide if it really was covered by the security exemption that the state attorneys were claiming.

Ribbons tied between flagpoles at Oceti Sakowin camp

Ribbons tied between flagpoles at Oceti Sakowin camp.

The state then filed a motion for a protective order for the EMAC (the first time I’ve ever heard of protective order being filed for a document). Clark granted this motion, but then ordered the state again to turn over an unredacted copy of the EMAC within five days, then he would have seven days to review it. The state turned over the EMAC on March 30, then on April 4 the state filed a motion requesting the EMAC be returned. On April 13, Clark filed for a seven day extension to review the EMAC. A few days after that, Gov. John Kasich took public responsibility for ordering the deployment of Ohio state troopers to Standing Rock.

Finally on April 24, Clark issued his report and recommendation regarding the Cincinnati Enquirer’s four-part public records request. On the first request for the names and ranks of Ohio state officers sent to North Dakota, Clark found the state had “improperly denied” this request. It was okay to withhold the names while the officers were on deployment, but now several months after their return, the state had not demonstrated the officers were at risk of harm, Clark said.

The medic tent at Oceti Sakowin camp

The medic tent at Oceti Sakowin camp

On the second request for all communications issued or received by the highway patrol regarding the deployment, Clark supported the state’s denial on the grounds it was too broad. He said the state had given the Enquirer a chance to file a narrower request, but the Enquirer had not done so.

On the third request for the EMAC agreement, Clark found it should be released. The state had asserted the document contained deployment plans, vulnerability assessments, and tactical response plans, but Clark found most of it was administrative and billing information. The state had also claimed releasing the EMAC would put other states that had agreements with North Dakota at risk, yet at least six other states had already released their own EMAC agreements.

Keeping an eye on police atop Turtle Mountain

Keeping an eye on police atop Turtle Hill

Clark did say a few portions of the EMAC could be redacted under the security exception, such as some of the militarized police equipment – yet Indiana’s EMAC contained the entire list, including 42 sidearms, 37 AR-15 rifles, 16 riot gear outfits, and 23 shotguns, among other things.

On the fourth request for policies governing EMAC agreements, the state denied the request on the basis that no such documents exist, and Clark supported the denial.

Incredibly, after the special master found the state should release the EMAC agreement, the state still refused to do so. The point of contention is the names of officers who were deployed, which are listed in the document. The state simply said no to the special master’s recommendation. The case then went to an actual trial judge at the Court of Claims, who upheld the special master’s recommendation and ordered the state to turn over the EMAC agreement. The case can now be appealed to the 10th District Court.

My public records case

A photo taken by Ohio state police looking down on activity from atop Turtle Hill. Via Muckrock. Click to enlarge.

Shortly after my public records complaint was accepted at the Court of Claims, I got a call to have a pre-mediation conference with an attorney at the court. She kept asking me specifically which records I wanted from the state police. Without knowing what they have, I just reiterated that I didn’t see why a request for records regarding specific officers sent on a specific mission at a specific location on specific dates was too broad. She said it’s possible the state police would have personal correspondence with their families in the documents. I responded that I didn’t see why state police would be sending their wives grocery lists over the state email system. The court attorney then said it was likely my case would go to mediation.

Warrior woman water protector holds sage and walks in front of riot police near the desecrated sacred sites and DAPL construction on October 22, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

A week after that, I got a message from P.R. Casey, the attorney who had originally denied my request. He said he had a proposal for me. When I called back, he talked to me for a half-hour, which surprised me he would spend that long on my case. Casey offered to send me everything he had already sent other reporters who had filed public records requests to see if that would satisfy what I was looking for.

He also reiterated that I needed to ask for specific records. I told him that was difficult without knowing what specific records they had, and he acknowledged that was a catch-22. I agreed to look at the documents he sent, and if that wasn’t enough, maybe they would help me pinpoint specific records to request. Casey then asked if I would drop my case with the Court of Claims. I said that would depend on what I found in the documents, and he admitted that it might be up to the mediator to decide if a further request would be a new case or an addendum to this case.

A few days later, I got a huge stack of documents in the mail. They consisted of the following:

  1. Information sent to the deploying officers including weather reports in North Dakota, employee assistance information, how to vote absentee, and how to get travel reimbursements.
  2. A use of force incident report with so much redacted that there’s no way to know what happened except that it was at Mandan County Correctional Center, where many of the people arrested at Standing Rock were held.
  3. Financial documents showing that Ohio state police requested $574,271 in reimbursement from North Dakota for the cost of the deployment – $512,921 for personnel costs including $271,992 in overtime, plus $58,824 in travel costs and $2,530 in assorted costs including $1,473 for a cost that was redacted. It also showed the officers routinely worked 12 to 14 hour days while deployed at Standing Rock.
  4. One disk of photos and videos taken by Ohio state troopers during the deployment, and one disk of videos taken by others during the deployment. The first disk showed that police had a sniper positioned on a hill above one of the main protest locations, and that they had someone embedded in with the protesters during the action. The second disk included video of activist Erin Schrode being shot by a rubber bullet. See more here
  5. One commander’s personnel file with personal information redacted, with a promise to go through the emails of two commanders that reference North Dakota or the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

Sniper shown sitting on top of Turtle Hill in photo released by Ohio state police. Via Muckrock. Click to enlarge

This was a lot of interesting information, especially the photos and videos, which were released without any difficulty. I’ll have to remember that as a public records request trick next time. Another trick was asking for emails from addresses ending in “nd.gov” or “mortonnd.org” or addressed to specific commanding officers with the Ohio state police. A third trick was asking for financial documents.

A few weeks later, P.R. Casey sent another thing I had asked for, the list of other public records requests the state police had received from the date of the deployment until the present. I had meant to ask only for other requests about the deployment to Standing Rock, but what Casey sent me was an 88-page list of every request the state police have gotten. Most were news media and attorneys asking for accident reports. Only a few were about Standing Rock. It is interesting to see the sheer volume of requests this agency gets every week – it’s a lot.

Mediation

Protests at the bottom of Turtle Hill in a photo taken by Ohio state police. Via Muckrock. Click to enlarge.

After that, the attorney from the Court of Claims contacted me again to ask if the response to my complaint had satisfied me or if I wanted more documents. From looking at the documents Casey sent, I was able to decide which specific things I wanted to ask for: a copy of the EMAC agreement, which for my purposes could be redacted; copies of the daily briefings given to Ohio state troopers; and any use of force reports, the same request as was made by the Dispatch.

Like the Cincinnati Enquirer case, my case did end up going to mediation. During a 30-minute teleconference, state attorneys agreed to send me a copy of the EMAC with the officers’ names redacted, but denied my requests for the daily briefings and use of force reports on the basis of the security exemption to the Public Records Act.

This is the militarized police force sent to confront and remove water protectors on November 1, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

The attorneys did clarify that the redacted use of force report they had sent previously was really a compilation of all the RTR, or response to resistance, reports that Ohio state troopers had filed during the entire deployment to North Dakota. They thought these reports would have the details I was looking for about what exactly Ohio state troopers did in Standing Rock, but that was also why they had redacted all of the information.

After that, the mediator asked me to dismiss my complaint so they could close my case. He said if I want to pursue additional legal action to get the briefing emails and response to resistance report, I would have to submit a new public records request, have that denied, go through mediation again, and likely take it to a trial court, where I would need to counter the state’s arguments as to why these documents can be withheld under the security exemption.

That’s really beyond what I as a citizen without an attorney or time to do detailed legal research can do, and I’m sure they know that. The Dispatch was also denied access to the use of force reports, and unlike me, they have attorneys, so I hope they pursue their case as the Enquirer did.

Postscript

Three days after my mediation, The Intercept published leaked copies of 13 briefings given by a private security firm called TigerSwan to officers deployed to Standing Rock. The documents are appalling. They show exactly what all of us thought – that police were conducting nothing less than a counter-insurgency operation such as our troops have done in Iraq – only this one was aimed against peaceful American citizens simply trying to protect their water. The report shows how militarized police treated water protectors as jihadist enemy to find, fix and eliminate. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened at Standing Rock.

Water protectors march down desecrated sacred ground to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline on October 22, 2016. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography

A Tale of Two Marches

The March for Science in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2017.

Front banner at the March for Science in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2017.

Front banner from the People's Climate March in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2015.

Front banner on the left side of Pennsylvania Avenue at the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2015.

One banner from the People's Climate March in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2017.

Front banner on the right side of Pennsylvania Avenue at the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2017.

April is Earth Month – which under a Trump administration means a lot of environmental activism. This year saw two historic marches in Washington, DC, each with sister marches around the country: the March for Science and the People’s Climate March.

A denier dinosaur at the March for Science.

A denier dinosaur at the March for Science.

I had planned to go to the March for Science in Columbus, where thousands of people said they planned to attend, then go to Washington for the People’s Climate March.  But when a family gathering unexpectedly pulled me to North Carolina, my husband, Paul, and I decided to go to Washington for both marches. It was a grueling but rewarding experience.

The weather at the two marches could not have been more different. On April 22, it was cold, rainy, and windy at the March for Science. I hadn’t brought an umbrella, and ended up buying one from a street vendor. Even so my clothes, shoes and everything inside my backpack got soaked.

Marcher at March for Science.

Marcher at March for Science.

The rain didn’t seem to depress turnout. We arrived at the Washington Monument as the pre-march rally was getting under way. There was just one checkpoint to have bags searched, and the line to get in ran for dozens of blocks. Instead, we took refuge inside a tent that had wifi, where I plugged in my phone and watched the speakers through the live feed from Democracy Now.

When it came time to march, Paul ran out to get some photos at the front of the lineup. I lingered behind to take photos of people’s signs. The signs were unique and creative, based on specific areas of science or supporting science, facts, and evidence in general. These were people who had spent a long time studying in their fields and were proud of their accomplishments.

A sign left at the Capitol building.

A sign left at the Capitol building.

Eventually I worked my way out of the crowd to find the march had already started. So I ran down Constitution Avenue for what seemed like forever, and got in front of the lineup at the intersection with Pennsylvania. There I was able to get a few photos of the parade banner, where if you look closely, you can see Bill Nye and climate scientist Michael Mann leading the charge. I also got 20 minutes of video of the march until my phone batter ran out.

The March for Science ended at the U.S. Capitol, where I continued to get photos of people and their signs. Despite the rain, the mood was happy and defiant. People gathered in drum circles to chant “This is what peer review looks like” and wore dinosaur costumes with signs saying “The meteor is a Chinese hoax.” Many signs were left on the fence of the Capitol building as a message to those inside.

You can see a slideshow of 142 photos I took at the March for Science below.

March for Science, Washington, DC

People’s Climate March

Whereas weather during the March for Science was cold and wet, it was hot and sunny a week later for the People’s Climate March. The temperature hit 91 degrees F, tying a record for April 29 in Washington, DC. Marchers were told to bring sunscreen, which we did. Despite using an SPF 70, the sunscreen sweated off, and I got sunburned enough to peel on my face and arms.

The Indigenous Rights banner at the People's Climate March.

The Indigenous Rights banner at the People’s Climate March.

Still, it was an incredible experience.  We arrived an hour before the march began and got to take lots of photos at the lineup on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol building. Environmental justice was a huge theme of the march, with the Protectors of Justice –indigenous communities and people of color who are at the frontlines of climate change – leading the charge.

The CO2LONIALISM wagon at the People's Climate March.

The CO2LONIALISM wagon at the People’s Climate March.

Some particularly notable displays included the CO2LONIALISM wagon shot full of arrows depicting sovereignty, language, reparations, and feminism; the 10-foot puppet of murdered Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres; and the many colorful parachute banners.

The lineup wound down Pennsylvania Avenue, turning on Third Street in front of the Capitol, then on Jefferson down the Washington Mall. After the Protectors of Justice were

  • Creators of Sanctuary – immigrants, LGBTQUI, women, Latinos, waterkeepers, food sovereignty and land rights
  • Builders of Democracy – labor, government, workers, voting rights, and democracy groups
  • Guardians of the Future – kids, parents, elders, youth, students, and peace activists
  • Defenders of Truth – scientists, educators, technologists, and health community
  • Keepers of Faith – religious and interfaith groups
  • Reshapers of Power – anti-corporate, anti-nuclear, fossil fuel resistance, renewable energy and transportation
  • Many Struggles, One Home – environmentalists, climate activists, and more
Resist banner near Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.

Resist banner near Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.

I tried again to take a video of the entire march, this time getting three 20-minute videos before running out of space. After clearing off a few things, I joined the march and quickly found myself among chants of “Hey hey! Ho ho! Donald Trump has got to go!” at Trump International Hotel – the same spot where people shouted “Shame! Shame!” during the Women’s March.

The next stop for the climate march was the White House. Marchers came up Pennsylvania Avenue, then turned up 15th Street NW to Lafayette Square. On the way they encountered the large “Climate Change Affects Us All” chalkboard that had made its debut at the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, along with the large Mercy for Earth balloon and a display of members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as puppets of the oil industry.

The Climate Change Affects Us All chalkboard made its debut at the People's Climate March in New York City in 2014.

The Climate Change Affects Us All chalkboard made its debut at the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014.

By the time I got to Lafayette Square, I was exhausted. Everyone was sitting down, and I found a place in the shade to rest and put on more sunscreen. Finding my husband took a while, and finding water took even longer. I had long since consumed the water I had brought, and saw no water on the march route. Unfortunately there were only a few street vendors with water, all with long lines. Finally a police officer sitting in his air conditioned SUV gave me a bottle of water. He must have felt sorry for me – and might not have done the same for a person of color.

The climate ribbon display was also in Paris during the 2015 climate conference.

The climate ribbon display was also in Paris during the 2015 climate conference.

That water allowed me to finish the march and stay for the rally at the Washington Monument, full circle from where we had begun the week before at the March for Science. The rally featured indigenous leaders, music, and a long list of speakers including the children who had touched off resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline by running from Standing Rock to Washington, DC.

The climate ribbon tree that I saw at the climate conference in Paris was there, with people hanging ribbons for what they did not want to lose to climate change. Then everyone left their signs in front of the Washington Monument arranged to spell out “Climate Jobs Justice.” The crowd was buzzed a couple of times by low-flying helicopters from the White House.

You can see a slideshow of 170 photos I took at the People’s Climate March below.

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An assessment

A marcher at the rally after the People's Climate March.

A marcher at the rally after the People’s Climate March.

What do these two marches mean? First, they show the widespread public support for policy based on science and evidence, and for action to address climate change. About 1.1 million people marched for science on April 22, with 100,000 in Washington, DC. Over 200,000 people marched for climate in Washington on April 29, with 370 sister marches around the country.

Polls show that the vast majority of people think science has improved their lives and support public funding for science, while concern for climate change is at an eight-year high. Large majorities of Americans, including a majority of Trump voters, support action on climate.

A sign left at the U.S. Capitol after the March for Science.

A sign left at the U.S. Capitol after the March for Science.

Will Trump or his cabinet to listen? Not likely. As of this writing, Trump’s administration has issued a series of disastrous orders regarding climate and environment, and he is close to pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.

Fortunately, we don’t need Trump to start taking action on climate. Some things you can do in your individual life include:

  • Bike, walk, or take public transportation to work
  • Trade your gas car for a hybrid or electric vehicle
  • Get an energy audit for your home
  • Ask your utility about energy from renewables
  • Eat less meat or eliminate meat consumption altogether

You can also act to change things on a collective level. Some ideas are:

  • Join the Sierra Club or another environmental group and sign up for action alerts. Sierra Club has a rapid response team to keep you posted on actions and events in your area.
  • Save phone numbers for your U.S. and state representatives into the favorites on your phone so you can call them quickly and easily when news breaks out.
  • Find and follow your local Indivisible or progressive group on social media.
A sign left near the Washington Monument after the People's Climate March.

A sign left near the Washington Monument after the People’s Climate March.

One promising front in the climate campaign is cities. Urban areas are responsible for 70% of carbon emissions, and 90% of cities are at risk from climate change. At the Paris climate conference, 1000 cities across the world pledged to go 100% renewable by 2050. Now that movement is coming to the United States with the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign. So far 28 cities and one state have committed to going 100% renewable, with discussions in dozens more.

Although things seem so bleak right now that scientists have to come out of their labs and Native American grandmothers into the streets, it’s times like this that show us what we are made of. I was heartened by the massive participation, creative signs, and visionary art at the March for Science and People’s Climate March. Millions of Americans are not going to let the current administration exploit the planet and destabilize the climate without a major fight.

A version of this post appeared in the July 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

Inside Climate Reality training with Al Gore

Almost 1000 people participated in Climate Reality training, March 1-4 in Denver. Click on photo to enlarge it.

Ten years ago when An Inconvenient Truth came out, I like so many other people became aware of the climate crisis. The movie ended with 10 things each of us could do to help stop global warming, and I did all of them: changed my light bulbs, took shorter showers, started recycling.

Yet now the climate crisis is worse than ever. Each of the last three years has been the hottest on record. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at its highest point since the age of the dinosaurs. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution, the fastest chemistry change in 50 million years. Glaciers worldwide are melting, the jet stream is wobbling, and ocean currents are slowing down.

I was lucky to get this pic with Al Gore at the Cedar Rapids airport in May 2015. No he doesn’t fly around on private jets. Photo by Brian Ettling

Clearly individual action is not enough. So two years ago, I attended my first Climate Reality training with Al Gore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to find out what else I could do. There I met hundreds of climate leaders from around the world and started learning about climate in depth.

Here are some mind-blowing facts:

  • The energy trapped by man-made global warming pollution is now equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days a year.
  • Extreme hot days are now 150 times more common than 30 years ago.
  • 2016 was the 40th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th century average.
  • 93 percent of the extra heat trapped by manmade global warming pollution goes into the oceans.
  • Seven 1,000-year floods have occurred in the United States in the last seven years.
  • A 1ºC mean temperature rise decreases wheat yields by 21 percent.
  • Water scarcity now affects 40 percent of the world’s population.
  • Air pollution kills 6.5 million people worldwide every year.
  • Land-based plant and animal species are moving poleward at a rate of 15 feet per day.
  • We have lost more than half of the world’s wildlife in the last 40 years.

Climate action

My Ohio mentees at Climate Reality training in Denver.

I came out of the Iowa training determined to tackle the problem of climate change in a much more systematic way, through action on the local, state and national level. The first thing I did was join the Sierra Club, which helped me get to the People’s Climate March, testify about the Clean Power Plan, and lobby my state legislators on returning Ohio’s clean energy standards.

In December 2015 I went to Paris for two weeks as part of the Sierra Club delegation during the COP 21 climate conference. At the time, no climate agreement had included developing countries, and no one knew if almost 200 nations would come together to make it happen. But they did, and I came back full of hope that the climate crisis would finally be addressed.

My California mentees at Climate Reality training in Denver.

A year later, after the 2016 election, I knew I had to get back to climate activism. In January, Climate Reality announced a new training in Denver, so I applied to go – this time not as a participant but a mentor. I was thrilled to be accepted and get 20 mentees from Ohio and California.

At mentor training the day before the conference, I learned that 2,700 people had applied for 900 slots. My list of mentees was full of accomplished people – among them, a city councilwoman from Cuyahoga Falls, a county commissioner from San Jose, a staffer for Ohio EPA, a former staffer for Florida Department of Transportation who left for a job at Google after the governor told employees they couldn’t discuss climate change, a doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and a high-school student from Marin School of Environmental Leadership.

Day 1

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Isa Caress performed their new song “Break Free” at Climate Reality conference in Denver. Photo by Jill MacIntyre Witt

On the first day we saw Al Gore give his entire slideshow, “The Climate Crisis and Its Solutions,” based on his presentation from An Inconvenient Truth. Gore updates this slideshow constantly, with many slides containing graphics and videos from recent events. This was followed by a panel discussion on responding to the impacts of climate change, featuring first responders, emergency managers, and community leaders on the front lines in Colorado.

Only the first half of Gore’s presentation is about the problem of climate change. If it stopped there, we would have been left hopeless, but it didn’t. The second half covered the incredible takeoff of renewable technologies. Here are a few facts:

  • In 2016, $58.6 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States.
  • Wind energy capacity has grown 16 times faster than 2000 projections.
  • The United States now has 75 gigawatts of wind power installed, enough to power 20 million homes.
  • Globally there is enough wind energy to supply electricity consumption 40 times over.
  • Solar energy capacity has grown 77 times faster than 2000 projections.
  • The cost of solar cells has fallen from $79.40 per watt in 1976 to 41 cents per watt now.
  • Solar installation has gone from 4 megawatts in 2000 to 35,800 megawatts now.
  • Enough solar energy hits the earth every hour to fill the world’s energy needs for a year.
  • Renewables accounted for 90 percent of new electricity generation worldwide in 2015.
  • The subsidy-free cost of solar and wind is now less than gas, coal or nuclear.

We also heard from Leah Greenberg, co-author of Indivisible, a guide by former Congressional staffers of best practices for making your elected representatives listen. The day ended with a performance by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and his sister Isa Caress, indigenous hip hop artists. Xiuhtezcatl is also a plaintiff in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit of 21 children against the federal government for not fulfilling its public trust to protect the climate for future generations.

Day 2

Al Gore’s photo with youth trainees at the Climate Reality conference in Denver.

Day 2 featured an incredible panel of scientists including Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist with NOAA; Henry Pollack, geophysicist at University of Michigan; and Don Henry, director of Climate Reality in Australia.

They talked about the impacts of various types of greenhouse gases, the most prevalent denier claims and how to respond (check out Skeptical Science), political forces aligned against climate action (see Merchants of Doubt), the Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-destroying CFCs as a model for climate action, how to get coal country on board (clean energy jobs), and the outlook for carbon capture and sequestration (too expensive for coal plants to implement), nuclear (too slow and expensive for our needs), and fracking (methane leakage and risks to water make it untenable, and we should just leapfrog to renewables).

We also heard about best practices for communicating climate change from Ngiste Abebe of Aulenor Consulting, and Jon Shenk and Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, who talked with Al Gore about making An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, which premieres July 28.

Day 3

The 2017 Denver mentors get their photo with Climate Reality Chairman Al Gore and CEO Ken Berlin.

Day 3 began with a survey of the political landscape after the election of Trump by Ken Berlin, president of the Climate Reality Project. One point Berlin made is that Trump can’t just roll back climate rules or even agency budgets without new rules and action from Congress, and that environmental activists and groups will be fighting his anti-climate agenda every step of the way.

We heard from Director of Engagement Olena Alec about what we as climate leaders could do, with slides of actions by current climate leaders, including two people I had trained with in Iowa, Doug Grandt presenting to a room of fifth-graders and Ina Warren conducting a monarch workshop.

Al Gore recognizes leaders of cities and universities that have committed to going 100% renewable. Photo by Bill Trueit.

Gore then presented awards to representatives of several cities that have recently committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. Climate Reality’s 100% Committed campaign is working with Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign to bring on dozens of new cities by 2018. Stay tuned – this could be coming soon to a city near you.

Next was a presentation by Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, that explained both the technology and economics behind the unstoppable rise of renewable energy over expensive, outdated and polluting fossil fuels, followed by a livestreamed panel of Climate Reality leaders talking with Al Gore about their experiences.

Mentees at the very first training in Al Gore’s barn in 2006 for what was then called the Climate Project. Photo by Keith Bergman.

Over lunch the mentors got to meet Al Gore in person. I had gotten my photo with Gore at the Iowa training in 2015 – purely by luck meeting him at the airport – so this time I took photos for other people. Some of the other first-time mentors were thrilled, while the longtime mentors caught Gore up on their latest news. Two mentors in Denver, Keith Bergman and Bill Bradbury, had been among 50 people at the very first training in 2006 at Gore’s barn in Carthage, Tenn.

The afternoon was filled with breakout sessions on topics like public lands, the water/energy nexus, putting on sustainable events, but after an intensive four days of training, I took a couple of hours for myself before commencement at which I gave certificates and Green Rings to my mentees. I’ll be following up with them throughout the year, hoping to arrange a meetup for the Ohio mentees this summer. We now have at least a dozen Climate Reality leaders in the state.

Moral challenge

The last day of Climate Reality training in Denver. My tables were in the back of the room that day.

Al Gore’s closing remarks to the conference summed up why I’m in the climate movement. Climate change, he said, is a moral challenge in the tradition of other moral issues of our time such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, apartheid, and most recently gay marriage. These movements encounter roadblock after roadblock, until finally they succeed.

“When any great moral challenge is resolved into a binary choice between what is right and what is wrong, the outcome is foreordained because of who we are as human beings,” Gore said. “That is where we are now, and that is why we are going to win this. We have everything we need. Some still doubt we have the will to act, but I say the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”

The Climate Reality Project has now held 35 trainings for over 11,000 climate leaders from around the world, and they are still going strong. This is a unique opportunity to learn about the most pressing crisis facing the planet, and how to make change even in a hostile political environment. It’s also a chance to meet some amazing people you will be in contact with for years. If you are concerned about climate change, this is a program you won’t want to miss.

This article appeared in the April 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

Experiencing history at the Women’s March

A multiperson banner near the Washington Monument at the Women’s March.

I have read my entire life about Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, which happened the year I was born. When I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington, I knew it would be just as historic, and that I didn’t want to miss it.

Part of our contingent from Columbus, Ohio, in the subway headed to the march.

I managed to get a seat on the “Rolling into Washington” tour, operated by Rise Travel, which conducts advocacy and education travel to rallies around the country. Time on the bus went quickly as we listened to workshops with state Rep. Teresa Fedor and former Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy, watched films like Suffragette and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry about the fight for women’s rights, and got to know our seatmates.

When we got on the metro into downtown DC, I started to get the feeling the march would surpass all expectations. Even at 6 a.m. at the outermost stop, the station was packed. By the time we made our way to the Washington Mall, it too was getting packed.

One of several signs about climate change that I saw at the march.

As more people poured into the mall, it became so full we could barely move. Yet somehow everyone was nice to each other, letting people by one at a time, and pointing out possible stumbling hazards like steps in the sidewalk or tree roots sticking up.

Unfortunately we couldn’t get near the speakers, but at least I saw them on CSPAN when I got home. We did hear the event was so crowded – at least half a million people with some estimates at 1.5 million – that they cancelled the march itself because the route was filled.

Around noon I got hungry and left to find lunch. It took a half hour to get to the Air and Space Museum at the other end of the mall, another half hour to get in, and another half hour in line, but eventually I ate.

I took the opportunity of the journey to get photos of as many signs as I could. The signs were colorful and creative, on all kinds of topics. I was especially heartened to see a lot of signs about the importance of taking care of the climate and environment.

Signs left outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.

After lunch I found people were marching spontaneously down Pennsylvania Avenue. I turned a corner and found the Old Post Office had been converted into a Trump hotel. Hundreds of people had spontaneously left their signs on the fence in front as calling cards for the new president.

Despite the crowds and confusion, the mood of the march was joyous and resolute. People had come to Washington depressed and in some cases in despair. What they found was hundreds of thousands of others who had the same American values they did, and who were not going to let their values be run over without a fight.

One sign summed it all up: “In this house we believe Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, and Kindness is Everything.”

I and lots of others left Washington that night with a new emotion going into the Trump era: Hope in our fellow Americans.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

See a set of photos from the Women’s March here:

DC Womens March (3)

See a series of videos that I took at the Women’s March here:

BLM auctions off 750 acres of Wayne National Forest for fracking

Demonstrators gather at the entrance to the Wayne National Forest in Nelsonville, Ohio, on December 1, 2016, to protest a BLM auction of oil and gas leases on public land in the forest. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Dawley.

Over the objections of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, the Bureau of Land management on December 13 auctioned off leases for parcels in Wayne National Forest to oil and gas corporations for fracking.

Parcels in the Marietta unit of Wayne National Forest marked off for auction to oil and gas corporations for fracking.

More than 750 acres across 17 parcels in the forest’s Marietta unit were sold to 22 oil and gas companies for a total of about $1.7 million. Winning bids ranged from $2 per acre to $5,806.12 per acre.

Originally the BLM had posted 31 parcels in Wayne National Forest for lease, but pulled 17 at the last minute, finding that they already had existing oil and gas leases. A few of the pulled parcels even have operational wells.

Discussion of fracking in Wayne National Forest goes back to 2011, when the BLM proposed leasing parcels of the forest to oil and gas operations. At that time the Sierra Club joined with other groups such as Athens County Fracking Action Network and Buckeye Forest Council to successfully lobby Wayne Forest supervisor Anne Carey to withdraw consent for fracking.

But in late 2015 the BLM brought back plans to frack Wayne National Forest. The agency held information sessions near each of the forest’s three main units in Athens, Marietta, and Ironton. In Athens 200 citizens showed up to oppose fracking.

The sale came after BLM issued a draft Environmental Assessment, a “fast-track” assessment of the risk of oil and gas drilling in the Marietta unit, along with an unsigned Finding of No Significant Impact in April 2016. Their proposal was to lease fracking rights to 40,000 acres, including 18,000 acres in the first auction. More than 50 oil companies expressed interest.

Objections

In response, the Sierra Club with Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Ohio Environmental Council submitted a 78-page letter demanding a full Environmental Impact Statement, a much more comprehensive examination of environmental risks.

Activists rallied against fracking in Wayne National Forest outside Sen. Rob Portman’s office in Columbus on November 3, 2016.

The groups said the draft assessment had not taken into account that:

  • Fracking poses a risk to water quality through contamination of rivers, streams, and water tables from fracking fluid and disposal wells.
  • Fracking harms air quality through pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and ozone.
  • Methane from fracking significantly increases greenhouse gas emissions, adding to climate change that increases the chances of extreme weather events, sea level rise, and impacts to infrastructure.
  • Fracking poses significant human health and safety risks such as increased risk of cancer, birth defects, and heart attacks.
  • Fracking poses a risk to wildlife species such as the northern long-eared bat and threatens loss of wildlife habitats.

BLM must end all new fossil fuel leasing and fracking on public lands in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground required to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change, the environmental group’s letter said.

Activists rallied against fracking in Wayne National Forest outside Sen. Rob Portman’s office in Columbus on November 3, 2016.

Sierra Club also worked with Center for Biological Diversity and Ohio Environmental Council to ask the U.S. Forest Service to intervene to stop the sale of Wayne National Forest for fracking. Under federal rules, BLM oversees oil and gas operations, but the Forest Service must consent to these activities and can withdraw consent at any time.

“Public lands are for the people, not for the benefit of Big Oil and Gas,” Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement last month. “Drilling for oil and gas means more fracking, and fracking means poisoning our air and water, and threatening the health of our communities and our environment. At a time when clean energy like solar and wind is proving to be safest, healthiest and most cost-effective way to power our country, it’s high time we recognized that we need to leave dirty fuels like coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

Unfortunately, the BLM did not take concerns raised by Sierra Club and other groups into account and declined to do an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement. In October the BLM published its final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact, setting the auction date for December 13.

Online auction

The auction was conducted entirely online. To bid, interested parties had to sign up through the auction portal, declare they intended to use the land for oil and gas exploration, and provide their bank account information to receive a maximum bid allowance.

Activists made plans for how to counter fracking in Wayne National Forest at a meeting on October 27, 2016.

Several environmental groups ran campaigns against fracking in Wayne National Forest. More than 4,000 people sent letters to the U.S. Forest Service through an action alert posted by Ohio Sierra Club. An Action Sprout petition posted by Ohio Environmental Council got over 8,000 signatures, and a Change.org petition posted by Athens County Frack Action Network netted over 99,000 signatures.

In addition, protests were organized at the offices of Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown, as well as at U.S. Forest Service offices in the Athens unit.

Coincidentally, also on December 13, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final report showing that fracking has indeed contaminated drinking water. This was a change from the draft report that found such contamination only in isolated cases.

The EPA updated the report after a virtually unanimous outcry from environmental protection organizations across the country as well as its own Science Advisory Board.

Activists rallied against fracking in Wayne National Forest outside Sen. Rob Portman’s office in Columbus on November 3, 2016.

BLM has 60 days to issue the fracking leases sold on December 13. Companies then must apply for a permit to drill, a process that takes at least six months.

Parties interested in opposing fracking in Wayne National Forest will meet on Thursday, January 26, at 6 p.m. in Room 100 of the Northwood-High Building, 2231 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43201, to discuss options following the December auction.

This story appeared in the January 2017 newsletter  for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group. 

A Thanksgiving trip to Standing Rock

I first heard about the protest at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota from actress Shailene Woodley. Back in August, she was following a group of youths who were literally running from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C., to protest the Army Corps of Engineers okaying the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River just a mile from the reservation.

This was just the beginning of public attention to the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a fight that started with a few hundred people camping out near the reservation in April. By the time I visited the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, camp over Thanksgiving, the number of campers had swollen to over 10,000. Why did this fight capture the attention of the nation?

Why Standing Rock?

Flag Road leading into Oceti Sakowin camp. The flags of 300 tribal nations line this road.

Flag Road leading into Oceti Sakowin camp. The flags of 300 tribal nations line this road.

First is climate change. Science tells us that if we want a chance of keeping global warming to 2 degrees C — and the Paris Agreement calls for 1.5 C — we can’t install any more fossil fuel infrastructure. No new fracking, no new drilling, no new pipelines.

To hold warming to 2 C, we can’t put more than 800 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to a study by 14 organizations for Oil Change International. Yet current oil and gas operations are on track to burn 942 – not to mention the 2795 gigatons of carbon in current known fossil fuel reserves. We must start the transition to renewable energy now.

A sign commemorates Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier

A sign commemorates Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier

Second is environmental justice. The 1, 172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline was originally set to cross the Missouri River just north of Bismarck. However, when concerns were raised about the safety of Bismarck’s drinking water, the river crossing was moved near the reservation. No one thought to ask the same questions about drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux.

Finally was the question of civil rights. Here was a group of Native Americans simply trying to protect their drinking water – yet the videos of militarized police and security troops cracking down on them were utterly shocking and seen throughout the world via social media.

Militarized police crackdowns

Labor Day weekend was the first time the police brutality toward pipeline protesters – more accurately known as water protectors – broke into the national consciousness. The pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, had starting digging up an area the tribe had indicated just the week before was a sacred burial ground.

A water protector waves a flag marking the year Eurpoeans and Native Americans first met.

A water protector waves a flag marking the year Eurpoeans and Native Americans first met.

Water protectors who had gone to the area to hold a prayer ceremony found bulldozers ripping up their ancestral graveyards. When they tried to stop it, they were met by private security guards with attack dogs. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was reporting on site that day, and got video of the attacks, including dogs with blood dripping from their mouths. Her report was picked up by several mainstream news outlets and seen by 12 million people.

From there the violence by police against peaceful water protectors got worse. Every day water protectors held marches, vigils, and prayer ceremonies. Many of these events were broken up by police. On October 9 Shailene Woodley was arrested as she streamed live to 40,000 viewers on Facebook.

On October 27, police raided the frontline Treaty of 1851 camp, pulling elders out of a sweat lodge at gunpoint and destroying tents and camping materials. More than 140 people were arrested, strip searched, marked with numbers on their wrists, and kept overnight in dog kennels.

A water protector waves at police atop Turtle Mountain.

A water protector waves at police atop Turtle Mountain.

On November 2, hundreds of water protectors were pepper sprayed and beaten with clubs as they tried to cross the Cannonball River to go to Turtle Island, an ancestral burial mound where police had set up a lookout point. Journalists streaming the chaos were shot with rubber bullets in the middle of on-camera interviews.

Then on November 20 was a night of violence that water protectors will never forget. After the October 27 raid, police had erected a road block north of the camp on Hwy. 1806, the main road from the reservation to Bismarck, where everyone went to buy supplies or go to the doctor.

When water protectors tried to move the roadblock, they were met with the kind of force we associate with third-world dictatorships. Police shot flare guns at them, which started fires in the grass. They then used firehoses on the protectors, even though the temperature was only 27 degrees. One woman, Vanessa Dundon of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, was shot in the face with a tear gas canister, blinding her in the right eye. Another woman, Sophia Wilansky of New York, almost had her arm amputated when she was hit with a concussion grenade.

Getting involved

A banner at Oceti Sakowin camp says Mni Wiconi or Water is Life

A banner at Oceti Sakowin camp says Mni Wiconi or Water is Life

Watching this story unfold for months on social media– mainstream media either wasn’t covering it or was taking the word of the police for everything – spurred me into action. When pipeline security used attack dogs on water protectors, online activists traced those dogs to a kennel in Ohio, and I filed a formal complaint with the state.

When I read that Ohio sent 37 state troopers to assist with the militarized police crackdown, I started a petition to bring them home on change.org that garnered almost 50,000 signatures. I then accompanied four native American activists from Ohio, along with Ohio Sierra Club Director Jen Miller, to meet with Gov. Kasich’s office.

Throughout I circulated action alerts, petitions, and call sheets for others to get involved as well.

Finally over the week of Thanksgiving, I got to visit Standing Rock. To be honest, after the violence that had occurred the weekend before, I almost didn’t go. But in the end I went, and I’m glad I did because to really understand something, you need to see it for yourself.

Peace and community

My friend Atticus Garden and me near Turtle Mountain.

My friend Atticus Garden and me near Turtle Mountain.

What I found at camp was very different from the chaos I had seen on social media: a sense of peace, prayer, and community – even among 10,000 people who had never met. It started when I was still in Bismarck. I joined a Thanksgiving Day protest there to highlight the genocide that Thanksgiving had meant for native peoples.

Police had shut off all roads accessing the protest, and cars belonging to water protectors were being towed. I was one of the few people with room in my rental car, so I drove a group of protectors from the San Francisco area back to camp. Even though I had never met them before, I felt an instant kinship as we talked about race, colonialism and oil.

Because the main highway was still closed, it took 75 minutes to drive from Bismarck to Standing Rock via an alternate route. I’ll never forget rounding a corner coming north on Hwy. 1806 and seeing the huge Oceti Sakowin camp spread out in the valley below.

The medic tent at Oceti Sakowin camp

The medic tent at Oceti Sakowin camp

Crossing the Cannonball River to get to camp takes you technically out of the Standing Rock reservation but onto land the Sioux claim as part of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Flags of the 300 Native American tribes that stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, lined the highway leading up to the camp entrance, then both sides of Flag Road driving into camp.

Letter to water protectors

Letter to water protectors

Oceti Sakowin camp functioned as a small city. There were roads, gathering spaces, seven kitchens, a medical tent, volunteer tent, media area, tool shop, and clothing tent with enough coats, blankets, pants, shirts, hats, gloves, and so forth to fill a Goodwill store. Although there was no running water, porta-potties were plentiful, reasonably clean, and stocked daily.

That afternoon I had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day dinner at Standing Rock Community High School. Celebrities such as Jane Fonda were there, but they were not the center of attention. Speakers were indigenous people and water protectors themselves. The cafeteria walls and tables were covered with cards and letters of support from children all over the country.

Vision and values

The day after Thanksgiving I attended an orientation in the morning and an action training in the afternoon. Both went well over two hours but were full of information.

The view of camp from Media Hill. Orientation was held in the big white dome.

The view of camp from Media Hill. Orientation was held in the big white dome.

For orientation I packed into the camp’s big white dome with 200 others, standing toward the back. The speakers went through camp protocols – for example, drugs, alcohol, and weapons were absolutely forbidden so as not to give the police any excuse for a raid. Many protocols were simply to help 10,000 people co-exist peacefully; for example, we were asked to use headphones to listen to music.

Other protocols were specific to native culture; for example, we were asked to stay off burial mounds, and women were asked to wear a skirt even over our pants. I didn’t know to bring a skirt and couldn’t find one at the clothing donations or the nearby casino lodge, so I ended up out of protocol along with half the other women. Next time I’ll know better.

Most of the discussion at orientation centered on the camp’s four main tenets:

  • Indigenous centered, or listening to indigenous people, allowing them to speak first, and conforming ourselves to their ways while a guest on their land.
  • Build a new legacy beyond racism, colonialism and exploitation of people and planet.
  • Be of use, whether helping to chop wood, cook meals, construct a yurt, organize clothing donations, wash dishes, or just pick up trash around camp.
  • Bring it home, or taking back experiences and new ways of looking at things with us when we left.
Ribbons tied between flagpoles at Oceti Sakowin camp

Ribbons tied between flagpoles at Oceti Sakowin camp

Values at camp included prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, and wisdom. Unfortunately not all non-native visitors had upheld them. One visitor had caused offense by wearing a feather headdress. Orientation leaders explained that headdresses are singular signs of honor and not a cultural icon for non-natives to appropriate. Native peoples very rarely use headdresses even though white cultures constantly depict native Americans as wearing them.

Another group of non-natives had come to Oceti Sakowin camp to party, comparing their experience to being at Burning Man. Oceti Sakowin was definitely not Burning Man. It was a peaceful prayer camp designed to resist the fossil fuel industry and exploitation in all forms, and to build a new community based on equality, sustainability, and peaceful co-existence.

Action training

Hwy. 1806 at Oceti Sakowin camp

Hwy. 1806 at Oceti Sakowin camp

The action training was a little awkward given that over 200 people attended. Normally they would have staged a realistic mock action, showing people what to do in case of police violence. Our mock action could not be as realistic, but I did learn about how to prepare for such events from people who had earned their chops during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

  • Bring goggles to protect your eyes from tear gas and pepper spray. Large lab goggles can go over glasses, but airholes need to be taped up.
  • Bring a bandana or scarf to cover your mouth.
  • Don’t show up at an action wearing all these things. You don’t want to look like you are ready for a riot. Just have them in your bag in case you need them.
  • Link arms to build a solid wall of people.
  • Have water or Maalox on hand in case eye washes are needed, and know how to wash out the eyes of others.
  • Write the phone number of jail support on your arms in case you need it.

During the action training, by total chance I wound up standing next to Kenny Myers, who I had met at a climate workshop in Columbus. He was at camp with a group of Ohio people including Max Slater and former Bernie campaign staffer Atticus Garden. They were staying with Benji, a Standing Rock Sioux tribe member who had been there since April.

The flag at Benji's camp, where the Ohio people were staying.

The flag at Benji’s camp, where the Ohio people were staying.

After the action training, Kenny and I went to Benji’s camp, and then the four Columbus people went to see Turtle Island, the scene of chaos on November 2 when police beat back water protectors trying to cross the Cannonball River. Photos from that day showed that some of the officers spraying the crowd with tear gas had Ohio State Patrol insignias on their shoulders.

Just the day before, Atticus had participated in an action in which water protectors laid down foot bridges to cross the river. This time they were successful, and video showed dozens of water protectors at the bottom of the hill while police sprayed water down from the top to freeze the sides so no one could get up. Now, busted-up kayaks were strewn along the base of the hill, and police had surrounded it with razor wire to keep water protectors from crossing onto it again.

After getting some photos, Kenny and I headed to the kitchen area for dinner. Friends who had visited Standing Rock in September described cooking soup in vats over open fires, but by the time I arrived, they had modern ovens on flatbed trucks powered by generators. I had an amazing dinner of eight vegetables and a small piece of salmon.

Busted up kayaks and canoes at the bottom of Turtle Mountain

Busted up kayaks and canoes at the bottom of Turtle Mountain

Afterwards, the four Columbus people headed to an outdoor concert that could best be described as indigenous rap. It was cold outside, but the audience packed together, warming things up. I wish I knew the names of the bands that performed – they seemed to be from all over the country, and all indigenous. The songs centered on colonialism and exploitation of people.

I remember one refrain, “We didn’t cross the borders. The borders crossed us,” about how the lines of indigenous lands keep changing depending on what white people want. The treaty of 1851 had given the Standing Rock Sioux much of the land where the Dakota Access Pipeline was now being built; that treaty had been broken long ago after white people found gold in the black hills. After 500 years, the pipeline was just one more example of broken treaties and colonialism against native peoples, who have a much longer memory of these things than we do.

Prayer ceremony

The next morning, I met my friend Doug Grandt, who I know from Climate Reality training, for brunch. Doug is a retired engineer who once worked for Exxon and now leads the life of a roving climate activist. He had spent several weeks at Standing Rock. Joining us was his friend Peter Anderson, an accomplished photographer who showed us a slideshow of pictures he took on Labor Day weekend when pipeline security attacked water protectors with guard dogs.

Redbud Camp is across the Cannonball River from Oceti Sakowin

Redbud Camp is across the Cannonball River from Oceti Sakowin

Just that morning the Army Corps of Engineers had issued a statement that they planned to close all access to Oceti Sakowin camp on December 5 and were asking water protectors to leave “for their own safety” because winter was coming. We knew the water protectors were not going to go anywhere, so we mapped out how they might still get supplies after the road was closed.

A display at Oceti Sakowin camp points to way to may places

A display at Oceti Sakowin camp points to way to may places

Also affecting the situation was news that 2,000 veterans were going to show up at Oceti Sakowin on December 4. This gathering had already been planned with the purpose of providing support and protection for water protectors against the ongoing violence from police.

After brunch, Peter went to his truck to get a book to recommend to me: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton. Based on a 2013 essay, the book explores the parallels of what Scranton saw as a U.S. Army private during the war in Iraq with what we are seeing from climate change. I ordered the book immediately and hope to read it over Christmas break.

Next I headed to camp. At 2 p.m. was a beautiful prayer circle ceremony planned by a group called Unify, which livestreamed from the scene and had 40,000 people joining in online. The ceremony was held near the foot of Turtle Island. About 300 people got in a big circle, and ceremony leaders came around with burning sage. Then elders came inside the circle and spoke to us about life on earth and why we are here. We ended with 15 minutes of silent prayer.

Keeping an eye on police atop Turtle Mountain

Keeping an eye on police atop Turtle Mountain

I couldn’t hear everything the elders said, but I remember the number four being important: four winds, four directions, four types of life — rock, water, four-legged creatures, winged creatures. We were told to unify the four parts of ourselves — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical — into one purpose. If we ran around chaotically, the result would be chaos. If we spent our time on frivolous things, the result would frivolous. But if we unify ourselves for one larger purpose, that is what we will achieve.

Before the ceremony started, the police called down to us over their bullhorn from the top of Turtle Island, saying they would “back off and let you have your ceremony if you stop buzzing us with those drones.” Apparently the drones, with their tiny propellers that sound like mosquitoes, drive the cops crazy. The police did back off, but the drones kept flying as normal.

Cast of characters

Bernie supporter Oscar Salazar gets his photo taken near Turtle Mountain

Bernie supporter Oscar Salazar gets his photo taken near Turtle Mountain

After the prayer ceremony most people left, but I lingered around in the shadow of Turtle Island. A lot of other interesting people did too. I met Oscar Salazar, the millennial who gained fame during the Bernie campaign for wearing a Bernie onesie everywhere. He was still wearing it at Standing Rock. I also met Aviva, a ukulele singer who had performed at the Thanksgiving dinner. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the police.

I also met Jordan Chariton of The Young Turks and TYT Politics, one of the best journalists working today who has spent a lot of time reporting from Standing Rock. Jordan was interviewing actress Frances Fisher, but found some time to get a picture with me.

Me with Jordan Chariton of TYT Politics, one of the best journalists working today

Me with Jordan Chariton of TYT Politics, one of the best journalists working today

Finally the sun went down, and I walked back to my car to go get dinner at the Prairie Knights Casino Lodge. Sitting on the trunk of my rental and on all the cars around mine were little care packages of cookies and water. I was happy to have this unexpected snack, especially as the sit-down restaurant at the casino had no tables available and the line for the buffet was an hour long.

It was almost 10 p.m. by the time I got food and got out, reeking of cigarette smoke. I decided to go back to my hotel in Bismarck, thinking I could return the next day for a few hours before flying out. But when I woke up the next day, I was really sick and didn’t have the stamina for another round trip. Instead I caught a showing of Arrival and flew home.

Forgiveness and victory

Oceti Sakowin camp from Hwy. 1806. Red Fawn is a water protector arrested on October 27 and still being held by police.

Oceti Sakowin camp from Hwy. 1806. Red Fawn is a water protector arrested on October 27 and still being held by police.

It was a very quick trip to Standing Rock, and I wanted very badly to stay longer. A week after I got back, 2000 veterans led by Wes Clark Jr. and Michael Wood began arriving at Oceti Sakowin. That same day, the Army Corps of Engineers finally issued its decision about the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River: The easement was denied for that location, and any other location would need a full Environmental Impact Statement.

Even more thrilling, on December 5 was a ceremony in which Wes Clark Jr. on behalf of all the veterans who had come to Standing Rock asked for forgiveness for past injustices the military had committed against Native Americans. Among Clark’s remarks:

Child's letter to water protectors

Child’s letter to water protectors

“Many of us, me particularly, are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. When we took still more land and then we took your children and then we tried to make your language and we tried to eliminate your language that God gave you, and the Creator gave you. We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.”

TYT Politics interviews actress Frances Fisher about Standing Rock

TYT Politics interviews actress Frances Fisher about Standing Rock

It was an amazing end to a nine-month saga in which the struggle of this tribe had gone from obscurity to worldwide sympathy and support. I felt privileged to have seen the Standing Rock Reservation and Oceti Sakowin camp at its height. Doug, Peter, and I had talked about how the camp evolved over the months and could easily grow into a permanent settlement.

However, I don’t know if that will happen. As soon as the decision denying the easement was announced, a major blizzard hit the area, and tribal chairman David Archambault II asked all non-native water protectors to go home. Most of them did when they were able to leave.

For its part, Energy Transfer Partners has vowed to continue pipeline construction, convinced that the Trump administration will reverse the denial of the easement. However, Kandi Mossett from Indigenous Environmental Network says Trump can’t simply reverse this order, and will still have to do the full Environmental Impact Statement. She believes the Standing Rock Sioux got exactly what they asked for, and counts the denial of the permit as a major victory.

Blueprint for hope

Sunset on the Canonball River

Sunset on the Canonball River

Ultimately the story of what happened at Standing Rock is one of great hope. Despite the fact we have a fossil-fuel president taking office in January. Standing Rock provides a blueprint for how to fight this form of exploitation. Water protectors stayed peaceful and united no matter how much violence was used against them, and just as in the Indian independence movement of the 1940s, civil rights movement of the 1960s, and anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, peaceful water protectors won the hearts, minds, and support of people all over the world.

Teepee at night

Teepee at night

Indigenous people everywhere are at the front lines of the climate fight. We’ve seen it in the resistance to the Tar Sands in Canada and drilling at Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. This fight has now come to the United States. Indigenous people are the right people to lead the fight against fossil fuels and the way to a sustainable and just transition to clean energy.

Indigenous people know better than anyone else how to live in peaceful co-existence with nature. They have also borne the external costs of fossil fuel exploitation most directly. My trip to Standing Rock showed me how exploitation of the earth goes hand in hand with exploitation of people, and that we need a new relationship not just with nature but with each other.

For 500 years our country has not addressed its history built on the genocide of native Americans. We need to — for their sake, our sake, and the sake of the environment we all share. As we move forward in seeking action on climate, let us not forget the people who bear the greatest costs, so we can figure out how to transition most equitably to a new world.

 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 – Reykjavik

Reykjavik skyline

Reykjavik skyline

Today was our day to explore Reykjavik.  We got up early for breakfast and headed out about 8:15 a.m.  I had repacked everything in my bags the night before, so fortunately I was semi-organized. On the way to Reykjavik, we stopped at Urriðafoss, or “waterfall of the trout.” It is Iceland’s most voluminous waterfall, located on the river Þjórsá.  The falls weren’t as tall as others we’ve seen such as Gullfoss, but they were spread out which probably accounted for the volume.

A hydropower plant is being proposed for this site. Iceland doesn’t need to energy to heat homes and businesses; instead, the power would be used to run another factory to make aluminum for export. The plant is controversial because it would severely impact the volume and rate of the waterfall, which in turn would affect the fish and wildlife. This is a good reminder that even though a form of energy might be renewable, that doesn’t mean it is without cost. Each time we build any sort of energy infrastructure, we need to weigh cost and benefits carefully, and the costs need to include impact on nature, animals, and environment.

Sun Voyager, sculpture as you enter Reykjavik.

Sun Voyager, sculpture as you enter Reykjavik.

After spending two weeks in what was basically wilderness, it felt like we were entering a big city coming into Reykjavik.  In reality Reykjavik is maybe a quarter the size of Columbus, but as Iceland’s capital it has a lot of tourist, cultural, and political attractions.

We started at Hallgrimskirkja, the large church at the highest point in town.  Several of the students went up the tower there, but I decided to wait on that and go straight to the National Museum.  This museum gives an overview of Iceland’s history from settlement to the present. I had a little over an hour, so I didn’t see everything in as much detail as I normally would, but I hit all the high points including various periods of Norwegian rule, Danish rule, and civil war, as well as the role of the church, witches and warlocks (many more men were burned at the stake in Iceland than women), disease and medicine, women’s rights, and technology.  I had not realized that Iceland did not gain complete independence until 1944.

Iceland's Alþingi parliament building

Iceland’s Alþingi parliament building

After the National Museum, I walked toward the harbor to catch a whale watching tour. On the way I stopped to get pics at the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament building, and picked up a sandwich.  I listened in on a tour leader telling his group about how the president of Iceland got himself elected by buying a house in a rural area and running from there since he knew no one in Reykjavik would vote for him.  Now that he is in office, he gets a stipend to travel “home,” even though he doesn’t really live there.  The tour leader sounded disgusted at the corruption — a common attitude around the world toward most politicians these days.

Reykjavik's Old Harbor

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor

I made it to my 2 p.m. whale watching tour 10 minutes early, only to find I had made a mistake in buying my ticket.  I had bought a tour for tomorrow when I would not be in town, not today — and the 2 p.m. tour today was full.  I was so disappointed until the tour company employee helped me buy a 2 p.m. ticket with a different company.  She actually took me to two competitors before we found a spot. It was a three-hour rather than a two-hour tour, meaning I would have to miss the whale museum afterwards, but I got the ticket anyway.  Our bus would not leave until 6 p.m., which at least gave me time to get back to church.

I was hopeful of seeing a whale on the tour because the morning group had seen a minke, but once we got out to sea, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge fog bank.  We did see three small pods of white-beaked dolphin.  I tried and failed to get pictures — you had to be up front and ready to snap a photo immediately at all times. But I did get a very choppy video of one pod of dolphins as the boat lurched back and forth.

I was also struggling with the big red warming overalls the tour company provides for people to stay warm.  The set I got was labeled XL but was still too small.  It was hard to get them on, hard to tie my shoes, and hard to walk.  After an hour of looking for whales we headed back to shore, and I struggled to get the overalls off.  At one point I thought I might get seasick, but I managed to hold it in.  Some fresh air and putting my head down on a table in the small restaurant helped, and I was okay by the time I reached shore. Looking back, it may be better that I didn’t get on the express boat, because those are much faster, hit the waves harder, and may in fact have made me seasick.

Hvalur whaling boats share a dock with whale watching tours.

Hvalur whaling boats share a dock with whale watching tours.

Throughout the trip, the tour leader told us about the various kinds of birds, whales, and dolphins in Faxa Bay, where both whale watching and whale hunting takes place. A few years ago, a boat full of whale watchers was shocked to come across a hunting boat with a whale strapped to its side.  Our tour operator urged the tourists on board not to eat at restaurants that sell whale meat, and if they found themselves in one, to leave and tell the restaurant owner why.  She also told us the whale hunting ships share the same harbor right behind the whale watching ships.  When I got back to shore and disembarked, I could see she was right.  Two big black Hvalur ships were right there, looking like two death stars docked at sea.

Reykjavik residents watching Iceland play Austria in soccer playoffs.

Reykjavik residents watching Iceland play Austria in soccer playoffs.

After getting back to shore I poked around the souvenir stores a bit, then headed to Hallgrimskirkja.  On the way through the town center, a large TV had been set up in a central square, and a crowd of people had gathered around to watch the Iceland soccer playoff game against Austria. Walking along, every bar and restaurant had set up its own TV in its window, with crowds gathered inside and outside to watch. You could walk down an entire street and not miss a call.

By then the fog had rolled onto land, and the church’s tower was entirely obscured by clouds.  I tried basically heading up and arrived at the church with about 15 minutes to spare. This was enough time to get some pictures inside the beautiful nave of the church, then head up the tower myself. Because of the fog there was no for the elevator, which holds only 6 people.  I went up by myself and got a foggy view all around town from the church tower. While up there I heard a great roar from the crowds below. When I got to the bus, I found out why: Iceland had scored a winning goal with just seconds to spare.  The entire town was celebrating.

Foggy view of Hallgrímskirkja

Foggy view of Hallgrímskirkja

At 5:57 p.m. the other students arrived at the bus from watching the game in the crowds.  We then headed to the overnight rooms where we would be staying near the airport in Keflavik.  I had said goodbye to Tobba at the National Museum and now said goodbye to Sigthor.  Those two really made our trip work, and I felt as if I was saying goodbye to good friends. My room with Danielle was a converted office next to a garage from a former car rental place and still smaller of gasoline, but I was tired enough not to care.

After dropping off luggage, the group set out to find food. The sign said a restaurant was 250 meters away, but it was more like a mile away.  We found a whole area of shops and restaurants, but many had closed early due to the soccer game, and others were either fast food or high end fine dining. Finally we found a Thai restaurant, and I got a stir fry that hit the spot.   After dinner we held a final reflection session at the restaurant, then headed back to the rooms for a shower and a few hours of sleep before leaving for the airport at 5:45 a.m.

Here are some more photos from the day. Click on any photo to enlarge it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 – Medieval farm, Soil Conservation Service

Today we did two main things.  In the morning was a visit to Keldur Farm, an Icelandic home that dates to the 11th century. In the afternoon was a guided tour through the Soil Conservation Service‘s interpretive gallery and surrounding land with its director, Sveinn Runolfsson. We capped the day with a final swim.

Keldur Farm

Keldur Farm was built in the 1000s, with a relatively modern addition in the 1830s.

Keldur Farm was built in the 1000s, with a relatively modern addition in the 1830s.

Keldur Farm was settled in 1000 and occupied continuously until 1946.  The farmhouse now belongs to the national park service.  Behind the farm is a natural spring, and it is in a valley so it is protected from possible invaders.  The house is made of volcanic rock with turf on top, which keeps it insulated. It is cold inside, but if the occupants built a fire, the heat would stay in.  Attached to the medieval house is a more modern house where the family lived from the 1830s through 1946.

The escape tunnel comes out through this hillside door.

The escape tunnel comes out through this hillside door.

One very interesting feature of the house is an escape tunnel.  This was not found until the 1930s when the occupants were digging out a latrine. The tunnel goes from the lower floor of the house and comes out on the side of a nearby hill. The theory is this was to be used as an escape hatch in case of attack. At the time the house was built in the 1000s, Iceland was in the middle of a long civil war over whether to remain independent or go back to the Norwegian king.

After the farm visit, we stopped at a place along the road where work crews were digging.  Layers of soil were clearly visible, and Dr. Slater explained what they meant. About a meter from the top was the settlement layer defined by the 973 eruption of the nearby volcano Hekla, marking when the area was settled with people. On the lower levels you could see layers 8,000 years and older, including a large layer of tephra laid down by volcanic eruptions and layers of gravel and rocks brought in by moving water and glaciers.

Soil Conservation Service

An area of degraded land in front of Mount Hekla.

An area of degraded land in front of Mount Hekla.

Driving through the area we could see a lot of grass, mosses, scrub brush, and some trees. But it wasn’t always this way. Centuries of settlement and cutting down trees left the land barren and eroded, so that by the 20th century it was severely degraded. Only black sand remained, with no plants or greenery of any kind. In the 1930s the Soil Conservation Service began efforts to rehabilitate the land by using seeds and fertilizer and restricting grazing.

Now the land is covered in greenery, and the SCS is deploying the same techniques all over Iceland and the world. Besides our group, the SCS is also hosting students from United Nations University to learn these techniques for combating desertification. UNU now has four programs running at SCS on land restoration, geothermal power, fisheries, and women’s equality.

Sveinn Runolfsson describes efforts by the Soil Conservation Service to restore desertified land.

Sveinn Runolfsson describes efforts by the Soil Conservation Service to restore desertified land.

The talk by Runolfsson was one of the best things we did this entire trip.  I loved hearing how Iceland is coming to grips with centuries of land mismanagement and learning how to properly manage and restore the land. There were so many parallels between this story in Iceland and the much larger story of climate change, which is really about how humans have mismanaged land, water, and air resources, and how we can rehabilitate what we have impoverished and learn how to manage it better.

Hearing the story of Iceland’s recovery gives me hope that humanity will be able to rehabilitate to planet, even after the oil, coal, and gas industries have helped lead to its degradation and delay action for decades through a deliberate campaign of denial.

This display shows how extensive the lyme grass root system is.

This display shows how extensive the lyme grass root system is.

From Runolfsson’s talk, I saw several ways the Iceland story parallels climate change today. First, when the SCS was looking for a solution to the desertification crisis on its land, it first tried seeds from other countries, but those plants quickly died. What worked was to go back to traditional knowledge and practices. People in this area had lived in tandem with lyme grass for generations. They used the seeds for making flour, and the root system for making household goods such as rope and brooms. Lyme grass proved to be hardy, winter resistant, and drought resistant — the perfect plant for northern desert conditions. SCS had great success in planting lyme grass with fertilizer and keeping grazing animals off the land.

What this shows is something I learned at the Paris climate conference, which is that indigenous knowledge and practices are what will provide the solutions for the future. Indigenous people from all over the world were a very pronounced presence in Paris. They see themselves as at the front lines of climate change because they are fighting oil, coal and gas companies on their lands — think of the indigenous groups displaced by dams in Brazil, or the indigenous people displaced by the Keystone pipeline in the United States. Yet indigenous people also hold the solutions we need to climate change, which is a point they tried hard to make in Paris. Unlike our practices, theirs are sustainable for generations. This use of lyme grass in Iceland is an example of a sustainable practice that provides the solution for rehabilitating a desertified area.

This display shows the amount of soil erosion over several millennia.

This display shows the amount of soil erosion over several millennia.

Runolfsson said two other things about how the land became so degraded that caught my attention. One was that the Vikings cut down all the trees to make charcoal for sharpening their swords — in other words, they consumed all the natural resources for war and the weapons trade. This is similar to how the military industrial complex, fueled by the oil, coal, and gas industries, is degrading our natural resources to fuel weapons manufacturing and trade along with endless wars. It turns out that resolving our differences peacefully is not just a nice idea, or nice for people caught in the crossfire of war.  It’s actually essential to preserving the inhabitability of our planet.

Second, Runolfsson referred to the misconception that we must produce as much food as possible, especially meat. Inhabitants of the past cleared all the trees to make way for grazing land for sheep, then they grazed the sheep until the vegetation was completely gone before packing up and leaving because they could no longer make a living from the land. This idea that we must produce endless supplies of meat is, in Runolfsson’s words, “a load of crap.” Yet representatives from every society that have come to SCS to learn about land rehabilitation have come in with that idea, and it is very hard to shake.

Lyme grass grows in the foreground. The area in the background still needs work.

Lyme grass grows in the foreground. The area in the background still needs work.

For climate change today, one of the root causes is our idea of endless growth and personal consumption. Meat production certainly plays a role, responsible for about a fourth of climate change, but so does our consumption in general, especially in the United States and First World. The idea that we must have more and more stuff, throw it away, and buy more, requires more and more to be manufactured, which requires more and more resources to produce.  It’s not sustainable, and we must find a better way. Gandhi said that we have enough for every person’s need but not every person’s greed. How right he turned out to be.

Household items made from lyme grass

Household items made from lyme grass

Can humans make the leap to simplifying our needs, going back to basics on our diet, and furnishing what we do use and eat through sustainable practices? I don’t know, but the story of Iceland shows that if we can, a clean environment and prosperity will be the reward. When Iceland’s land was degraded after centuries of misuse, it was one of the poorest nations in the world. Now it is one of the richest, welcoming 1.7 million tourists a year, about five times its total population. So many people want to visit because to see Iceland’s natural beauty, showing that a country that preserves its environment will thrive, while one that degrades it will not.

After a brief stop back at the Soil Conservation Service to gather up our bathing suits, we went for one more swim and hot tub at another Icelandic swimming pool. I got in 15 laps and two tub sessions and felt warm and refreshed afterwards.

Here are more photos from the day. Click any photo to enlarge it.