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The Civil Rights Act at 50: Protecting people of color and the environment, too

rosa parks

This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, which made segregation unlawful and ushered stronger constitutional protections for people of color. There are still people who think that social justice and environmental issues are totally separate things, but as I’ve argued before, they’re not — and the Civil Rights Act is a case in point. The climate justice and environment worlds have benefited much from this law, particularly Title VI, which protects people of color from discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal funding.

While Title VI has been a somewhat suboptimal civil rights guardian in the environmental realm, it has had some successes in keeping people of color from suffering disproportionate pollution burdens -- and in ensuring equal access to public transportation. Some of these successes were discussed this week in the webinar "Transportation Equity: A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue,” which was hosted by a coalition of civil rights groups called the Transportation Equity Caucus.

Three presenters each provided examples of how precisely transportation policy meets at the nexus of civil rights and environmental protection. After all, the original 20th century battles leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 were over rail and labor (check the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and buses (check the Montgomery Bus Boycott). Civil rights advocates still rely on the law to address transit inequities, and not just in the post-Jim-Crow South.


Put a label on it

GMO labeling initiative heads to the ballot in Oregon

Steve Rhodes

More than enough Oregon voters have given their signatures to get a GMO-food labeling initiative on the ballot in November, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Three New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont -- have all succeeded in passing labeling bills through their legislatures in the past year, but in the rest of the country, legislative efforts as well as ballot initiatives have so far failed.

California was the first state on the West Coast to try a ballot initiative, in 2012. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Then Washington tried a ballot initiative in 2013. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Now, to complete the coastline, Oregon is cuing up its own ballot initiative.


Fighting dirty

Congressional candidates compete over who is most pro–fossil fuel

Republican and Democratic dueling fists

Politico has helpfully provided a roundup of Senate and House races in which environment and energy issues are a major factor. If you click on the video expecting to find that climate change is finally moving voters, you’re going to be disappointed. In all four races -- the Louisiana, Kentucky, and Colorado Senate races and a West Virginia House race -- the Democratic and Republican candidates are arguing over who is more supportive of fossil fuels.

The only partial exception is Colorado: Democrat Sen. Mark Udall supports the state’s large natural gas sector -- though his Republican opponent Rep. Cory Gardner claims he isn’t supportive enough -- but Udall also calls for climate action. That’s because Colorado has a different political terrain than the others -- it's purple, not pure red. Colorado is much richer than Kentucky or West Virginia, has a more diversified economy, and has a lot of liberal voters who came for the high quality of life.

In Kentucky and West Virginia, coal is king and the candidates are competing over who will more faithfully serve its narrow interests. In Louisiana, the same model applies, but with oil and gas instead of coal.


Gay rights activists ally with greens in the climate fight

Ben Evans

They're here, they're queer, and they're ready to roll up their sleeves and fight the good fight against climate change. Queers for the Climate is a new activist group focused on "saving the straights" (and the planet) from imminent environmental ruin.

How? By applying some of their own smart strategies that helped win over half the country in the battle for LGBT marriage equality and civil rights.

We sat down with Joseph Huff-Hannon, one the founders of Queers for the Climate, to talk about why we need to save the straights, and how the climate justice movement can take a page out of LGBT community activism.


Eden Foods pulls a Hobby Lobby

This organic food company is refusing to pay for employees’ birth control

Eden Food cans

Just because a company is organic doesn't mean it's progressive. Exhibit A: Eden Foods.

Like Hobby Lobby, Eden Foods sued the Obama administration to try to get out of providing contraceptive coverage for its employees. Eden Foods is a Michigan-based business that bills itself as "the oldest natural and organic food company in North America." It is solely owned by Michael Potter, a Catholic who refers to birth control pills as "lifestyle drugs" and likes to whine about "unconstitutional government overreach." (More crazy quotes from him below.)

In Eden Foods Inc. v. Kathleen Sebelius, filed in federal court in March of 2013, the company claimed its religious freedom was being violated by the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employee health insurance cover birth control. The suit argued that "contraception or abortifacients ... almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices.” In October, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided against Eden Foods, ruling that a for-profit company cannot exercise religion.

But then, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that family-owned, "closely held" companies can use religion as an excuse to flout the birth control mandate. Eden Foods is one of a few dozen "closely held" for-profit companies that have filed suit over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. On July 1, the Supreme Court ordered the 6th Circuit Court to reconsider its decision against Eden Foods and another plaintiff with a similar case.


With one more nail in its coffin, is Keystone XL history?

Cowboy Indian Alliance
Matt Sloan/Bold Nebraska

This past weekend, on June 29, TransCanada's permit from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission to build the Keystone XL pipeline quietly expired.

Well, sort of quietly. The Cowboy & Indian Alliance, which marched on Washington in opposition to Keystone XL earlier this year, held a celebratory buffalo roast at the Rosebud Sioux Spirit Camp and raised a flag with an image of a black snake cut into three parts.

The flag referenced an old prophecy about a black snake that would threaten the community's land and water. Earlier interpretations had held that the snake was the railroad, and then the highway system. But when the plans for Keystone XL emerged, it seemed clear that, since both black snakes and Keystone XL traveled underground, this was definitely the black snake -- or at the very least another one.


hacking the climate

B.C. put a price on carbon. What happened next will surprise you

BC mountains
Marcia and Mike Nelso Pedde

When I pull up to the pumps in my small hometown on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, I pay more for a tank of gas than in California, my new home. Why? Because regardless of where gas prices hover at the moment, the B.C. government tops off every gallon with a 25-cent tax.

Complaining about gas prices is almost as ubiquitous as small talk about the weather, so it seems counterintuitive for politicians to hike costs up even further. Yet somehow the province’s Liberal party managed not only to do just that, but also to win an election centered on the issue in 2009. They did it by designing the tax in a way that benefits the province's robust middle class.

Hallie Bateman

The B.C. carbon tax is built on a simple tenet of human behavior: When the price of something goes up, people will consume less of it. It actually applies to not just gasoline, but to all sources of atmospheric carbon, including natural gas and propane, and is based on how much carbon they emit. For example, since natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, it is taxed at a lower rate. This ensures emissions are priced in proportion to their impact on the climate.

As a result, British Columbia’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are now nearly 20 percent below the rest of Canada's. This put the province “within spitting distance” of its goal to reduce emissions 6 percent below 2007 levels by 2012 a year ahead of schedule, says Mary Polak, B.C.’s minister of the environment.

Sustainable Prosperity, a research and policy institute that measured the tax’s impacts, reported that the policy reduced fuel consumption seven times more than if the price of gas had naturally increased by the same amount due to market fluctuations. The tax drove consumption down not just by pushing gas prices up, but also by raising awareness about why we need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

All that happened in the span of just five years.


Conservatives don’t deny climate science because they’re ignorant. They deny it because of who they are


For many years, the U.S. National Science Foundation, more recently with the help of the General Social Survey, has asked the public the same true or false question about evolution: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." And for many years, the responses to this question have been dismal. In 2006, 2008, and 2010, for instance, less than half of the public correctly answered "true."

In 2012, however, the NSF and GSS conducted an experiment to try to better understand why people fare so badly on this evolution question. For half of survey respondents, the words "according to the theory of evolution" were added to the beginning of the statement above. And while only 48 percent gave the correct answer to the unaltered question, an impressive 72 percent correctly answered the new, prefaced version.

So why such a huge gap? Perhaps the original question wasn't tapping into scientific knowledge at all; rather, it was challenging the religious identity of creationists who think the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Presented with the new phrasing, however, even many creationists know what the theory of evolution states; they just deny that it is true. So are these people really "scientifically illiterate," as many in the science world might claim, or are they instead … something else?


Please, sir, may I have some more?

California’s cap-and-trade program will fund environmental justice

Richmond refinery
Jason Holmberg

Have poor Californians hit the environmental-health jackpot?

The money raised through the sale of carbon credits under the state's young carbon-trading program is earmarked for projects that help the climate and the environment. And under a law passed a couple of years ago, SB 535, 25 percent of that money must go to programs that provide benefits to disadvantaged communities, with 10 percent to be spent on projects located directly within those communities. Disadvantaged communities are determined by the state based on pollution levels and socioeconomic factors. They are typically poor neighborhoods of color, where health is compromised and lives are cut short by pollution from the refineries and power plants whose greenhouse gas emissions are being capped.

A $156 billion budget signed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) outlines how the state will spend $872 million expected to be raised over the coming year through the sale of carbon credits. (Note that the $832 million figure in the chart below excludes a $40 million emergency appropriation to help manage the drought.)


First Nations, first dibs, says Canada’s Supreme Court

indigenous protest
Jennifer Castro

With just one court ruling, the situation of pipelines in Canada has changed in a big way.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a 14-year-old battle over logging rights on Tsilhqot’in Nation territory in British Columbia. Its decision says that any First Nation land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government cannot be developed without consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it.

To say that this has huge implications for the Canadian oil industry is an understatement. The only thing that stands between Alberta, the province that is the hub of the country's oil boom, and the Pacific Ocean, which connects Canada to the lucrative oil markets of Asia, is unceded First Nations territory. The Northern Gateway pipeline, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved earlier this week, runs along a route that First Nations have already begun blockading, a full 18 months before the pipeline is expected to begin construction.