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Roll ‘em: A dispatch from 350.org’s Do the Math bus

Paul Anderson

Editor's note: During 350.org's cross-country Do the Math tour, Grist board member Bill McKibben will be filing occasional reports from the road for us.

Your average 51-year-old book author with a receding hairline doesn’t get that many opportunities to feel cool. Still, there are moments.

Right at the moment we’re speeding south on I-5 out of Seattle, nearing the Oregon border. There are eight of us from 350.org aboard this bus, which is good since it sleeps eight -- and we’re going to spend the next three weeks crisscrossing this country. I've got the late great Dobie Gray (“Up on the Floor”) cranked on Spotify. There are four -- count ‘em, four -- live wifi hotspots fired up -- more internet than you can shake an iPhone 5 at. Which is good, because you need the web to find the biodiesel stations.

We’re on a high from Wednesday night’s debut of the Do The Math roadshow in Seattle before a crowd of 2,000. It was a day beyond our wildest expectations. Not just the fired-up crowd (who shouted down the heckler who tried to cut things off before they began), but also the announcement from the mayor of Seattle that he was instructing the city treasurer to start investigating how to divest city money from the fossil fuel industry. And then the news that Unity College in Maine had chosen this day to become the first college in the country to sell off its fossil fuel stock. We’re rolling in more ways than one.

The problem with fighting climate change is that it never feels like we’re getting anywhere. Right now, though, we’re getting to the outskirts of Portland. And maybe the outskirts of doing some damage to the Exxon mystique, the Chevron reputation, the Shell brand.

I've got my Bidder70 baseball cap on, my earphones pulled down tight, and now my northern soul playlist has turned over to the too-soon-forgotten Prince Philip Mitchell and his not-quite-a-hit “I’m So Happy.” Don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re rolling.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Texans putting their bodies on the line to stop Keystone pipeline

Almost exactly a year after we launched civil-disobedience actions in Washington to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, folks across Texas are doing the same thing today.

Or rather, they’re doing something bolder and more courageous -- instead of trying to make a political point, they’re actually announcing plans to put their bodies on the line to stop the construction of a portion of the pipe.

An East Texas landowner shows his opposition to Keystone XL. (Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade.)

I know what you’re thinking: We won at least a temporary victory, blocking approval of Keystone. That’s why Mitt Romney keeps talking about how his first task in office will be getting it going. Indeed, we did carry the day -- but only on the portion of the pipeline that crossed the border with Canada and connected to Alberta’s tar sands. The largest civil-disobedience action in the last 30 years -- 1,253 arrests over two weeks -- was enough to persuade the Obama administration to postpone approval of the border-crossing permit.

But unrelenting pressure from the oil industry was enough to persuade Obama to give the pipeline companies a few slices off the loaf. In fact, the president promised to “expedite” approvals for the southern portion of the pipeline, stretching from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Texas. It was a real low point for the Obama administration, a perfect emblem of its bankrupt “all of the above” energy “strategy.”

And now Transcanada is ready to begin construction -- and a brave crew of local residents is ready to try and stop them.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Lame it on Rio: Youth stage Earth Summit walkout

Youth walk out of the Earth Summit conference. (Photo by Youth Policy.)

The Rio+20 conference is remarkably listless; the energy of 1992 has bled into a formulaic bureaucracy-fest. The text negotiators have agreed to punts on virtually every major issue (one analysis showed that governments agreed to "encourage" and "support" actions 148 times, but only on three issues summoned the courage to say “we will” actually do something).

But it came spontaneously alive for a few hours this afternoon, when a youth-led demonstration turned into an Occupy-style sit-down that in turn agreed to a mass walkout. We’ve just marched out the front doors of this sprawling complex, 130 strong, surrounded by as many cameras and tape recorders.

The youth-led demonstration violated all the U.N. rules -- security squads surrounded us at the first sound of controversy, announcing that our gathering was "unsanctioned" and if we didn’t stop immediately we’d lose our accreditation. People discussed the threat through the human mic for a few minutes, and then decided it wasn’t a threat at all -- in fact, we were eager to surrender our badges, because then we wouldn’t be part of what had turned into a sham.

Read more: Politics

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Climate-change deniers hitting a wall — but so is the planet

A version of this article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it: “I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the nerve center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew attention to the fact that these guys had overreached, and with predictable consequences.

A hard-hitting campaign from a new group called Forecast the Facts persuaded many of the corporations backing Heartland to withdraw $825,000 in funding; an entire wing of the institute, devoted to helping the insurance industry, calved off to form its own nonprofit. Normally friendly politicians like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) announced that they would boycott the group’s annual conference unless the billboard campaign was ended.

Which it was, before the billboards with Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden could be unveiled, but not before the damage was done: Sensenbrenner spoke at last month’s conclave, but attendance was way down at the annual gathering, and Heartland leaders announced that there were no plans for another of the yearly fests. Heartland’s head, Joe Bast, complained that his side had been subjected to the most “uncivil name-calling and disparagement you can possibly imagine from climate alarmists,” which was both a little rich -- after all, he was the guy with the mass-murderer billboards -- but also a little pathetic. A whimper had replaced the characteristically confident snarl of the American right.

Read more: Climate Skeptics

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Before Rio Earth Summit, let’s put pressure on world leaders to end fossil fuel subsidies

Bill McKibben at 350.org's recent Rally to End Fossil Fuel Subsidies. (Photo by 350.org.)

In just a few weeks, world leaders are converging on Rio for a landmark “Earth Summit” to talk about sustainability issues -- but it’s time for them to stop talking and start doing. And we know where they can begin.

This year our governments will hand nearly hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies to the coal, gas, and oil industries. Instead, they should cut them off.

Cutting fossil fuel subsidies could actually take a giant step towards solving the climate crisis: Phasing out these subsidies would prevent gigatonnes of carbon emissions and help make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels.

And here’s the thing: This demand is completely reasonable -- so reasonable that the leaders of the big countries have already agreed to it. The G20 promised in 2009 that fossil fuel subsidies would be phased out in the “medium term.” But the political power of the corporate polluters scares them, and so no nation has yet followed through.

If we want real action to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, we need to give world leaders a people-powered push as the Rio Summit approaches -- and that push starts now with this global call to action.

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Too hot not to notice? Connecting the dots on climate

Students in Johannesburg, South Africa are connecting the dots. (Photo by 350.org.)

A version of this post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The Williams River was so languid and lovely last Saturday morning that it was almost impossible to imagine the violence with which it must have been running on Aug. 28, 2011. And yet the evidence was all around: sand piled high on its banks, trees still scattered as if by a giant’s fist, and most obvious of all, a utilitarian temporary bridge where for 140 years a graceful covered bridge had spanned the water.

The YouTube video of that bridge crashing into the raging river was Vermont’s iconic image from its worst disaster in memory, the record flooding that followed Hurricane Irene’s rampage through the state in August 2011. It claimed dozens of lives, as it cut more than a billion-dollar swath of destruction across the eastern United States.

I watched it on TV in Washington, D.C., just after emerging from jail, having been arrested at the White House during mass protests of the Keystone XL pipeline. Since Vermont’s my home, it took the theoretical -- the ever more turbulent, erratic, and dangerous weather that the tar-sands pipeline from Canada would help ensure -- and made it all too concrete. It shook me bad.

And I’m not the only one.

Read more: Climate Change

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You shall not pass: Activists to block Warren Buffett’s coal trains

350.org activists getting pumped up for Saturday's day of action. (Photo by Gregory Dennis.)

Saturday will be a vast day of witness about climate change, from underwater on the dying coral reefs of the Pacific to the summit of melting Mont Blanc. But one of the thousands of actions planned for Connect-the-Dots day will be aimed at educating a single human being -- one with power enough to make an immediate difference in the fight against climate change.

Activists in White Rock, British Columbia, will stand on the tracks across which four of Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern coal trains are scheduled to pass en route to the Pacific, where their cargo will be shipped to China and burned in power plants. The organizers have informed police and Burlington Northern of their plans, and have pledged to be “peaceful, non-violent, and respectful of others. There will be no property destruction. We are striving to be the best citizens we can. We will stand up for what we believe is right and conduct ourselves with dignity.”

And there’s a chance, I think, that their actions might work. Because Buffett is clearly a more interesting man than most of the 1%. In the U.S., he’s called attention to the fact that the rich are undertaxed -- the so-called “Buffett Rule” has become a rallying cry against inequality. And he’s also pledged to give most of his vast fortune to Bill Gates’ foundation after his death, arguing that “life has dealt a terrible hand to literally billions of people around the world, and Bill and Melinda are bent on reducing that inequity to the extent they possibly can.”

But though some of us have tried, as far as I know no one has ever been able to talk with him about the connection between Berkshire Hathaway’s business and that “terrible hand” afflicting so many.

Read more: Climate Change

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Subsidies 101: A guide to corporate handouts, and why we shouldn’t stand for them

Fossil fuel corporations don't need more cash.

Cross-posted from TomDispatch.

Along with “five-dollar-a-gallon-gas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is: “subsidies.” Last week, for instance, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.”  It was, in truth, nothing to write home about -- a curiously skimpy bill that only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even then it didn’t pass.

Still, President Obama is now calling for an end to oil subsidies at every stop on his early presidential-campaign-plus-fundraising blitz -- even at those stops where he’s also promising to “drill everywhere.” And later this month Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.) will introduce a much more comprehensive bill that tackles all fossil fuels and their purveyors (and has no chance whatsoever of passing this Congress).

Whether or not the bill passes, those subsidies are worth focusing on. After all, we’re talking at least $10 billion in freebies and, depending on what you count, possibly as much as $40 billion annually in freebie cash for an energy industry already making historic profits. If attacking them is a convenient way for the White House to deflect public anger over rising gas prices, it is also a perfect fit for the new worldview the Occupy movement has been teaching Americans. (Not to mention, if you think about it, the Tea Party focus on deficits.) So count on one thing: We’ll be hearing a lot more about them this year.

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About that record-breaking dead heat in Illinois (no, not the polls)

It’s election day in Illinois, and the hottest topic in the Land of Lincoln will -- I can forecast with complete confidence -- be totally ignored by the GOP challengers.

That would be ... the weather. Today may mark the seventh straight day of 80 degree temperatures at O’Hare, something that’s never happened before in March. Or in April, for that matter. "It is extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year-long periods of records to break records day after day after day," the local office of the National Weather Service said in a statement Sunday morning, following a Saint Patrick's Day that shattered 141 years of records.

And the Windy City is not alone. In International Falls, Minn., which threatened suit when a Colorado city tried to steal its “Nation’s Icebox” moniker, the mercury went to 77 degrees on Saturday -- which was 42 degrees above average, and 22 degrees above the old record. It’s possible, according to weather historian Christopher Burt, that no station with a century of weather data has ever broken a mark by that much.

Here’s how Jeff Masters, founder of the website WeatherUnderground and probably the internet’s most widely read meteorologist, put it from his Michigan base: “As I stepped out of my front door into the pre-dawn darkness from my home I braced myself for the cold shock of a mid-March morning. It didn't come. A warm, murky atmosphere, with temperatures in the upper fifties -- 30 degrees above normal --greeted me instead. Continuous flashes of heat lightning lit up the horizon, as the atmosphere crackled with the energy of distant thunderstorms. I looked up at the hazy stars above me, flashing in and out of sight as lightning lit up the sky, and thought, this is not the atmosphere I grew up with."

Indeed -- later in the day an F-3 tornado wrecked a swath of homes and businesses just west of Ann Arbor, the earliest such storm Michigan has ever seen. “Never before has such an extended period of extreme and record-breaking warm temperatures affected such a large portion of the U.S. in March, going back to the beginning of record keeping in the late 1800s,” Masters wrote.

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Bitter spill: Leaky Keystone’s economic risks would dwarf benefits

Cornell's Global Labor Institute issued a big new report [PDF] this morning examining the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the most comprehensive look yet at its economic impact. And it makes clear just how right President Obama was to block this boondoggle: It would make money for a few politically connected oil companies, but at a potentially staggering cost to the American economy.

For once economists looked at the whole effect of the project. Unlike studies paid for by the TransCanada pipeline company that purported to show thousands of jobs created (a number since walked back to "hundreds" of permanent positions even by company spokespeople), this study asks: What happens when there’s a spill?

Not if there’s a spill. There's going to be a spill -- the smaller precursor pipeline recently built by TransCanada spilled at least 14 times in its first year of operation, once spewing a geyser of tar-sands oil 60 feet into the air. In fact, the new Cornell report estimates that we can expect 91 significant spills over the next half century from Keystone, in large part because the bitumen it would carry south from Alberta is like liquid sandpaper, scouring the steel of the pipe.

Read more: Oil