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Steyer may spend $100 million to push climate cause in midterms, but polluters will spend more

Tom Steyer and David Koch
Fortune Live Media / Reuters
A championship matchup: On the left, Tom Steyer. On the right, David Koch.

After years of being outgunned by polluters and their allies, environmentalists have been celebrating the arrival of a savior: Tom Steyer, a Bay Area hedge-fund billionaire. Last year, he spent $11 million to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe get elected as Virginia governor, and millions more on anti-Keystone ads and the campaign to elect Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey to the Senate. And on Tuesday, The New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore reported, “He is rallying other deep-pocketed donors, seeking to build a war chest that would make his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch.”

The Koch brothers, naturally, are not sitting idly by as their enemies armor up. As Politico’s Ken Vogel wrote last month, “If the Koch brothers’ political operation seemed ambitious in 2010 or 2012, wait for what’s in store for 2014 and beyond. ... This year, the Kochs’ close allies are rolling out a new, more integrated approach to politics. That includes wading into Republican primaries for the first time to ensure their ideal candidates end up on the ticket.”

The problem for progressives, as Vogel’s story and others make clear, is that in the era of unlimited outside political spending, liberals will usually be outraised by conservatives. And environmentalists will be outraised by polluters.

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When Rush Holt retires, the House will lose a scientist and an environmental advocate

Rep. Rush Holt
House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats

With the midterms coming and Republican control of the House of Representatives entrenched via gerrymandering, leading Democratic congressmen are heading for the exits. A few weeks ago, green beacon Henry Waxman (Calif.) announced his retirement. In another loss for environmentalists, Rush Holt (N.J.) said on Tuesday that he also will not seek reelection.

Holt was always an odd fit in Congress. Elected in 1998, in what had previously been a Republican-leaning district, Holt’s professorial mien stood out among the back-slappers, demagogues, and machine hacks. Owlish and bespectacled, Holt holds a PhD in physics. Before entering politics, he taught at Swarthmore and worked in a lab at Princeton. In 2011, he beat the supercomputer Watson on Jeopardy.

Holt had progressive politics in his blood, though: His father, a senator from West Virginia, was a New Deal Democrat, and his mother was West Virginia’s first female secretary of state. After one unsuccessful run in the 1996 Democratic primary in New Jersey's 12th congressional district, Holt won the primary two years later, then knocked off a Republican incumbent.

“He’s sort of a combination between a politician and Bill Nye the Science Guy,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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Top 10 urban highways that deserve to be torn down

Buffalo
Payton Chung
Route 5/Skyway blights the waterfront in Buffalo, N.Y.

Urbanist policies are often thought of in the positive: building bike lanes, light-rail lines, pedestrian plazas, and mixed-use developments. But the suburban sprawl that swept across our landscape left a lot of detritus, so urbanists also have to focus on getting rid of the negative -- in many cases, this means highways.

It’s no coincidence that the watershed moment in American urbanism wasn’t the initiation of a new urbanist project. Rather, Jane Jacobs rallied her Greenwich Village neighbors to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway from ever being built. Other cities that abandoned their most ill-conceived highway plans in the face of community resistance, like Vancouver and San Francisco, are noted today for their high quality of life and low carbon footprint.

But in much of North America, limited-access highways tore through downtowns and surrounding urban neighborhoods. Designed to bring suburban drivers into and through inner cities, these elevated behemoths consumed everything in their paths and cast shadows over what was left. They separated residents from their communities, waterfronts, and public amenities. Now, as they age, it has come time for cities to determine what to do with them: rebuild, replace, or tear down.

Every year, the Congress for a New Urbanism issues a report, “Freeways Without Futures,” that lists highways deserving of demolition. In its recently released 2014 edition, the group writes: “CNU advocates for replacing urban freeways with surface streets, boulevards and avenues as the most cost-effective, sustainable option for cities grappling with aging grade separated roads. This has the added benefit of providing significant opportunities to heal local street networks and improve regional traffic dispersion.”

The 10 freeways on the list, and an additional five that have been targeted by campaigns for removal, have much in common: Built in the two decades after World War II, and thus nearing the end of their design life, they degrade their environs. Several were conceived by New York’s infamous master builder Robert Moses. One, in Buffalo, actually split in half a park designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Another, which bears Moses’ name, separates the city of Niagara Falls from its famous attraction. Here's the full list:

Read more: Cities

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The top 3 flaws with the State Dept.’s Keystone study

One, two, three hands holding numbers
Shutterstock

When the State Department issued its environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline two weeks ago, the media's main takeaway was that State had found the project would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. But as environmental advocates have dug deeper into the report in the days since, they have concluded that State made several flawed assumptions and decisions. Moreover, even its own findings show potential contributions to global warming if the pipeline moves forward.

To save you the trouble of reading an epic amount of bureaucratese (the report itself runs 11 volumes, and then there are all the critiques), here are environmentalists’ three major complaints:

1. The questionable assumption that tar-sands development is inevitable

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How we can make our cities greener and more equal at the same time

light rail on tree-lined Portland street
Shutterstock

Ever since the rise of Occupy Wall Street, the issue of inequality has been getting some long overdue attention. President Obama has made strengthening the middle class -- every cautious Democrat’s preferred euphemism for economic justice -- the centerpiece of his second term and his recent State of the Union address. Even Republicans are starting to talk about inequality, albeit incoherently.

It turns out that efforts to fight inequality and to fight climate change can be one and the same. Some of the best local-level climate and clean-air policies also boost economic mobility, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, “Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class.”  (Disclosure: I worked at the Center for American Progress in a different program from 2005 to 2007.)

Sprawl has trapped many Americans in poverty: Unable to afford a car, maintenance, insurance, and gasoline, they cannot get from their suburban homes to jobs. For many middle-class Americans, their car is an albatross, forcing them to spend too much money just getting to work everyday. That’s one reason that a recent Harvard study found that transit-rich coastal cities such as New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston ranked among the country’s top 10 metro areas for economic mobility, while auto-dependent Southern cities such as Atlanta and Jacksonville ranked near the bottom.

Similarly, the heating and electric bills to maintain an inefficient, detached suburban home can be extravagant. Every dollar spent to fill up your car or heat your house is a dollar not put to a better purpose: spending on your child’s college education, investing in a new business, or saving for retirement.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Ted Cruz is right: Everyone is too fixated on Keystone XL

Ted Cruz
Gage Skidmore

For Republicans, the Obama administration’s slow decision making on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline has been the talking point that never stops giving. Since the 2012 campaign cycle, Republican politicians have constantly harped on how approving Keystone would supposedly create thousands of jobs and ensure domestic energy security. Mitt Romney promised that if elected, “I will build that pipeline if I have to do it myself.” Congressional Republicans, such as House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (Wis.), have suggested tying Keystone approval to unrelated measures such as debt-ceiling increases. Last month, all 45 Senate Republicans signed a letter to President Obama demanding an immediate decision on Keystone.

The Republican ardor for Keystone has always been irrational. The State Department found that the pipeline would only support 35 permanent jobs. And it would actually make gasoline more expensive in the U.S. because it would enable more exports.

It is tempting to see the right’s obsession with Keystone as the mirror image of the environmental movement’s arguably excessive focus on the project. But they are actually quite different. The activists getting arrested in front of the White House over Keystone may be placing too much emphasis on a pipeline instead of, say, EPA regulation of power plant emissions. But their concern for the detrimental impact of extracting tar-sands oil is sincere and well-founded.

Republican elites do not have serious, substantive reasons to fixate on Keystone. They do so because the average conservative voter likes energy exploration and the pipeline is a convenient symbol.

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Enviros threaten to sit out election over Keystone. Don’t believe them.

unhappy people sitting against a tree
Shutterstock

Poor President Obama. He must be quaking in his boots over a threat from environmentalists to stay at home this November if he approves the Keystone XL pipeline. The Hill reports:

Environmental groups are warning President Obama that his liberal base might stay home on Election Day if he approves the Keystone XL oil pipeline. ...

[They] say approval of the project could sow liberal discontent and hurt Democratic chances in 2014 — including a host of contests that will likely decide who controls the Senate during the final years of the Obama White House.

“It is very likely that there will be negative consequences for Democrats if Keystone were approved,” said Kate Colarulli, the associate director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign. “This is a tremendous opportunity to protect the climate and build the Democratic base if Obama rejects Keystone XL.”

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Good news: Most Americans want climate action. Now for the bad news …

man checking box
Shutterstock

In the United States, we are supposed to have a representative system of government. You’d never know it from looking at Congress and climate change, though. Consider the results of a recent poll of 1,000 registered voters that was commissioned by the Sierra Club and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR).

GQR found consistent, clear majorities are concerned about climate change and favor action to mitigate it. Sixty-six percent of respondents said climate change is a very or somewhat serious problem. Fifty percent said the federal government should be doing more to address climate change, 23 percent said it is doing about the right amount, and only 19 percent said it should be doing less.

These views were just as strongly held, or more so, among key groups of swing voters that decide the outcome of presidential elections. Sixty-nine percent of self-identified moderates, and 67 percent of Midwesterners, said climate change is a serious problem, and 54 percent of moderates said the government should be doing more about it.

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What kind of a U.N. envoy will Mike Bloomberg be?

Michael Bloomberg
azipaybarah

Although former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is often called a centrist, in his case the term obscures more than it illuminates. Bloomberg is actually an ideological mishmash. On some issues he is somewhat conservative: security and policing, business and inequality. On others he is unabashedly liberal: gay rights, gun control, immigration, transportation, and climate change.

In every case, Bloomberg would argue that he is merely pragmatically pursuing the greater good, instead of ideology. In some cases -- the rights of protesters versus Bloomberg’s heavy-handed policing -- his definition of the public good is simply guided by his own ideology. In others, though -- most notably transportation and climate change -- Bloomberg adopted his progressive policies after years in City Hall demonstrated their wisdom to him. Mike Bloomberg didn’t run for mayor because he wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build bike lanes -- but that will be his legacy.

And so it is fitting that, on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Bloomberg special envoy for cities and climate change. Reuters reports, “Ban said Bloomberg will assist him in ‘consultations with mayors and related key stakeholders, in order to raise political will and mobilize action among cities as part of his long-term strategy to advance efforts on climate change.'”

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Waxman poetic: Climate hawk leaves an impressive ‘stache of green achievements

Rep. Waxman speaks at the Feb. 17 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C.
Charlie Kaijo

To young environmentalists, Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) name is virtually synonymous with climate action. In the heady days of November 2008, after President Obama’s landslide victory, it seemed as if a cap-and-trade bill might actually pass Congress. Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House. There was only one problem: House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who represented the automakers and was subservient to what he perceived as their interests. Like a mustachioed white knight from a fairy tale, Waxman rode in and rescued Mother Earth from the clutch of Dingell’s gnarled, choking fingers.

Waxman ran for and won the House Energy Chairmanship. Short, bald, bespectacled, and not an especially charismatic speaker, he may not have looked like a knight in shining armor. But Waxman was a master of legislative strategy. He went on to coauthor with then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House only to die in the Senate.

Read more: Politics