More than 40 years ago, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisconsin, announced his vision for what he called the "National Environmental Teach-In." Scintillating titles aside, Nelson was onto something. His idea was to raise awareness of the burgeoning environmental movement and address global conservation problems head-on. Spurred by Nelson's announcement, the New York Times even said the issue "may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam."
On April 22, 1970, about seven months after Nelson first mentioned his plan—and after colleagues convinced the senator of a much better name—the inaugural Earth Day drew approximately 20 million Americans to events across the country. More importantly, organizers claim the event helped foster the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. Not bad for a grassroots "teach-in."
Earth Day has surely grown over the past four decades. Earth Day Network, a nonprofit charged with broadening the environmental movement worldwide, boasts a global reach with more than 20,000 partners and organizations in 190 countries. According to the organization, more than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities now, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. In Missoula alone, we counted more than a dozen different events this year, ranging from special documentary screenings to lectures on eco-friendly products. It's easy to feel green these days.
That's all fine and good—heartwarming, even—but in the minds of many environmental advocates, Earth Day has outgrown the feel-good vibe of buying compact fluorescent light bulbs and reached a moment of apocalyptic recognition. Yeah, we're going there.
Whereas the Earth Day gatherings of Nelson's generation were able to claim remarkable progress on the issue—heck, they passed three different landmark acts under President Nixon—today's science makes the case that we've fallen dreadfully behind the curve. Just look out the window: 60 percent of the Helena National Forest is infested with mountain pine beetles, the state's springtime snowpack has declined 40 percent in the last half-century, and we may need to rename Glacier National Park considering its namesake could be gone as early as 2020. There's more: The most dramatic ecological event we experience in the Northern Rockies is wildfires, and a 2006 peer-reviewed study found a link between global warming and the frequency and severity of the fires. We haven't just fallen behind, some scientists believe we've flat-out dropped out of the game.
That said, we're not without hope. NASA's James Hansen, arguably the world's leading climate scientist, points out that the earth's natural systems absorb 43 percent of the world's global CO2 emissions, a phenomenal fact in and of itself. Even more remarkable is the fact that if we reduce emissions by more than 57 percent, the earth's natural systems will start to draw down atmospheric CO2 concentrations, heading us toward a cooler planet—think of it like taking a blanket off the globe. Look at it another way: We're currently at 391 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in the atmosphere, and that number rises a few points or so each year. If we get down to 350 ppm quickly, Hansen says we've more or less dodged the climate bullet.
That's an achievable goal. But to reach those numbers, there has to be a change in strategy, it has to happen quickly and it has to be more than your California transplant neighbor trading in her Land Rover for a Toyota Prius. Right here in Missoula, the stage is set for exactly the kind of change that this situation calls for—change in the courtroom, change in legislation, and change by not letting the current ways of doing business continue. And it's all happening right now.
Climate change has its day in court
The Kyoto Protocol pact sunsets in 2012. Last year's United Nations climate change convention in Copenhagen is widely viewed as a failure. The prospects of U.S. Congress passing cap-and-trade legislation this year are daunting. If the United States has made any progress in fighting climate change, it's occurred in the courts.
"What's new and different—and what I think is really interesting—is attorneys making the argument that we need to take into consideration the impacts of climate change," says University of Montana Law Professor Elizabeth Kronk, "and judges saying, 'Yes, you're right.'"
Count U.S District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula among the judges saying yes. Two of Molloy's recent decisions have considered the impacts of climate change.
Last fall, Molloy ordered the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to return nearly 600 grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park back to the endangered species list, in part because their food supply is shrinking due to climate change. He wrote that the agency failed to take into account scientific studies that make a connection between the decline of whitebark pine trees—the nuts of which grizzlies eat—and the deaths of grizzlies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
"The identifiable best available science," Molloy wrote in his September 2009 ruing, "indicates that whitebark pines are expected to decline due to a variety of causes, including climate change, increased forest fires, the mountain pine beetle epidemic, and infection by white pine blister rust."
Experts say Molloy's ruling serves as a prominent example of attorneys successfully leveraging the Endangered Species Act to combat climate change.
"Numerous legal theories are being used to apply existing statutory authority to climate change," says Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School's Center for Climate Change Law. "The Endangered Species Act is one of them. There are some theories under which the Endangered Species Act can be used to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That would be a very indirect effect that most people don't hold out much hope for. However, there are much more successful efforts to use the statute to protect particular species and places that are especially vulnerable, and [Molloy's decision] fits in the second category."
Molloy made headlines again in March for approving an unprecedented settlement between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and three environmental groups, including the Montana Environmental Information Center. The settlement suspended 38,000 acres of oil and gas leases across Montana and required the agency to review how oil field activities contribute to climate change.
"It's important," explains Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who worked on the case, "because we're not talking about the combustion side at the end of the line, we're talking about when you take it out of the ground. What are the greenhouse gas emissions when that happens?"
The settlement seems to have already changed agency policy. Two weeks ago BLM delayed another 91,000 acres of leases in Montana and the Dakotas "to bring more certainty to industry and in light of expected litigation."
"Since we agreed to conduct additional environmental reviews on the 2008 leases, it only makes sense to complete additional environmental reviews before we offer new acreage for leasing," said Gene Terland, BLM's Montana state director, in a statement.
Adds Mary Apple, spokeswoman for the BLM Montana office: "Probably everything between now and then will have its own separate environmental analysis."
Apple says the agency's new in-the-works land-use plans will consider how its oil field leases contribute to climate change. And BLM spokesman Matt Spangler says the agency's Washington office "is working on policy to address the recent environmental issues raised in Montana."
Schlenker-Goodrich says the settlement isn't legal precedent, "but, in a broader policy sense, yes, it is precedent-setting," he says.
In the absence of binding federal or international law, Molloy's considerations of climate change give Western environmental groups hope that the few legal tools at their disposal to fight the problem can have a lasting impact.
Give no ground
Rising Tide finds results from "direct action" campaign
The five students figured they'd be arrested. After all, the odds of the Montana Land Board reversing its stance on leasing 570 million tons of Otter Creek coal because of a handful of Missoula protesters were slim to none. But the five young members of Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT) held the floor—literally—for 45 minutes on March 18, refusing to budge.
And as they predicted, it took the officers of the Helena Police Department to bring their stand to an end.
NRRT co-founder Nick Stocks considers the sit-in a complete success. Sure, the Land Board approved the deal with St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. shortly after his cohorts were led out in handcuffs. Changing that outcome wasn't exactly the point. There were larger stakes that day, Stocks says, for both the grassroots group and for Otter Creek.
"The leasing of the coal necessitated some kind of punctuation," says Stocks, 26, who was present at the meeting but did not participate in the sit-in. "It wasn't getting a whole lot of national attention, but because of the action, because of the way the wider world relates to direct action, it was a successful move in that moment to expand the argument. Now everyone knows about Otter Creek."
What people remain less familiar with is NRRT itself. The group formed last fall and still counts only a dozen members among its ranks. It's one of the newest chapters in the global Rising Tide network, a loose and noncentralized collection of activists that has for years stood on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. The Rising Tide mission is simple: Refuse to compromise, give no ground, and take the consequences as they come.
"I think the type of organization that Northern Rockies is has a lot to offer," Stocks says. "The grassroots, far left has the ability to, when you take action along that front, put a lot more things on the table. It allows for much broader political debate."
Stocks and his fellow activists realize they aren't the first to cross the line of political correctness and openly challenge the accepted course of debate in Montana. In fact, they thrive on the examples set by environmental radicals like Mike Roselle (see below), and have found the Missoula community surprisingly receptive to their efforts.
"It never really went away," Stocks says of the direct action movement popular during the timber wars of the 1980s and '90s. "It just shifted its focus a bit. Climate change...this has become the path along which we're organizing, and a new vein of direct action needs to be here."
Otter Creek proved fertile ground for the creation of NRRT and gave the group its first opportunity to draw a line in Montana's soil. But five misdemeanors for disorderly conduct only marked the beginning. NRRT sees itself as filling a troubling void in Montana's mineral extraction and climate change debate.
"There has been a lot of work done in Montana, in the Northern Rockies, around wilderness issues and around mineral extraction, but there have been no direct action elements to that battle," says Max Granger, 23, a University of Montana student and one of the NRRT members arrested in Helena March 18. "So I guess we're trying to build that backing a little bit."
Members like Granger are now preparing to up the ante. Last December, Imperial Oil announced plans to ship oil rig equipment through Montana to its Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada. Upwards of 300 trucks will pass through Missoula before heading up the east side of the Continental Divide to the border. Once assembled, the rigs will extract 300,000 barrels of oil a day for Imperial, whose majority shareholder is ExxonMobil.
"We're trying to get a campaign going to stop these shipments that are going to the tar sands mining," says Michael Phelps, 29, who was also arrested during the Helena sit-in. "Basically it's the first time in the United States that activists have been able to take a stand on putting a wrench in the tar sands mining operations, because for the most part we just consume the oil."
"It means that we get to address it," Phelps adds, "rather than hope somebody somewhere else does."
Many in NRRT's ranks have deeply personal motivations for joining the fight against climate change. Brent Rowley, 28, grew up in a West Virginia coalmining town, witnessing first hand the devastation inflicted on the environment by mineral extraction. Suzie Rosette, 29, has gained a solid background in environmental activism from back east. Phelps vowed years ago to dedicate himself to protecting whatever place he wound up calling home. That place turned out to be Missoula and, by extension, Montana.
But the group's drive as a whole is far greater than those individual incentives. NRRT echoes Stocks' sentiments when he explains that the Rising Tide message is about world economies, social justice and "the future of our planet."
"That's why Otter Creek isn't just about Otter Creek," Stocks says. "It's about all of the Otter Creeks."
Serious about winning
Granddaddy of radical eco-activisim continues the fight
In 1987, Mike Roselle scaled Mount Rushmore and attempted to put a giant gas mask and banner across George Washington's chiseled face. That protest against coal-fired power plants earned him four months in a South Dakota prison—and national notoriety.
Over the years, the long-time Missoula resident hasn't let up. He co-founded a slew of high-profile organizations, including Earth First!, the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society. He's fought mining and logging companies with a series of controversial tactics that sent the same message: Act now to protect the planet, or it'll be too late. And after three decades of using non-violent civil disobedience to fight the good fight, he's considered the granddaddy of the radical eco-activism movement.
"If we're serious about winning," he says, "then we've got to be serious about standing up and confronting the people who are making this happen."
More than two years ago, Roselle helped found his latest group, Climate Ground Zero. The organization has since conducted a high profile "pressure campaign" to stop Massey Energy's West Virginia mountaintop removal operation. Climate Ground Zero activists draw from the civil disobedience handbook to stop coal mining by chaining themselves to equipment, squatting in trees on land slated for blasting and using their bodies to block roads.
Roselle has been arrested six times during the past year by the same police officer in West Virginia. The Climate Ground Zero crew as a whole tallied approximately 150 arrests last year and wracked up tens of thousands of dollars worth of fines.
"It's not a free ride. This is a very difficult way to wage a pressure campaign," Roselle says. "You have to throw pretty much everything you have at it."
It's worth it, though, because they're getting the job done, Roselle says. He points to the group's success at grabbing national headlines and the fact that, earlier this month, the Obama administration announced new regulations that are expected to seriously curtail mountaintop removal.
Successes like that make it easier to shrug off criticisms. During his many years of demonstrations, critics have dubbed Roselle an eco-terrorist bent on destruction. Even people inside the environmental movement question his tactics at times.
Roselle, however, makes no apologies. He says ballot boxes and political persuasion are optimal ways to affect change—and clearly less dangerous than, for instance, scaling Mount Rushmore. But if that doesn't work, when it comes to saving the planet, civil disobedience becomes a moral imperative.
"It's a pretty traditional American way to respond to the fact that governments aren't always right. The courts aren't always right. And, of course, the corporations aren't always right," he says. "When everything else has been exhausted, and what we feel is irreparable harm to the environment and to these communities is happening, than it's a moral issue. And we have to take actions that we think are going to make a difference."
Historically, pressure campaigns have led to groundbreaking environmental legislation like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, he says. Then there's the obvious example of citizen activism helping to spur civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
"The way it was really applied by Martin Luther King, those people who were involved in those campaigns they suffered immensely. They took huge sacrifices. And, of course, some of them died," he says. "It was a very serious campaign and not just about marching down the street or banging drums or hanging a banner off of a building. They were actually getting out there and confronting the problem where it was."
Watching Montana glaciers melt and the state's rivers flow at historic lows, Roselle says it's clear an environmental emergency is mounting. But it's been tough to drum up activists willing to take a stand against environmental threats in Montana.
"I was very interested in civil disobedience in Montana over the last few years. In Missoula, I find it very, very difficult to find people who are willing to take that step," he says. "The people in western Montana didn't seem to be too concerned about what's going on in the eastern part of the state."
During the past several months, though, the emergence of Northern Rockies Rising Tide has given him a glimmer of hope. The group of young activists grabbed the spotlight locally and nationally in March after they staged a sit in that disrupted a Montana Land Board Meeting that convened to lease state-owned property for coal mining.
"Those are my heroes," says Roselle. "They've got the only other campaign in the U.S. right now on coal mining. It's us and them."
The environmental movement needs more groups like Rising Tide, Roselle says. Too often people simply write a check and expect someone else to do the work.
"I think the fact that we spend probably a half of a billion dollars a year to maintain an environmental movement in this country and we get so little out of it is a travesty," he says. "Citizens have got to become personally involved in these environmental issues ...There's enough of us to make a difference."
All together now
Clean Energy Works builds consensus for new energy plan
One October morning in 2009, a busload of U.S. veterans from a national organization called Operation Free pulled up to Missoula's Old Post Pub. They walked into the bar and sat down for breakfast with local veterans to discuss concerns about the impact of U.S. oil dependence on national security. Operation Free's solution: a national clean energy plan.
Operation Free is one group out of 80 organizations that make up Clean Energy Works, a sprawling nationwide coalition pushing for clean energy and climate legislation. How sprawling? In Montana, Clean Energy Works is comprised of Operation Free, Montana Audubon, Montana Business Leaders for Clean Energy, Montana Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resource Defense Council and the Alliance for Climate Protection (which works toward former Vice President Gore's Repower America campaign), among others. The coalition's motto—"More jobs. Less pollution. Greater security"—speaks to the diverse viewpoints of its organizations.
"The breadth of this coalition is unprecedented in the U.S. conservation movement and maybe in terms of any issue that's come before Congress," says Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation.
Clean Energy Works attacks a common goal from different angles. Some groups, like Operation Free, are most concerned with national security. Others focus on the economic opportunities of clean energy technology. Still more express concern about the impact of climate change. Regardless of their primary motivation, all the members of Montana's Clean Energy Works are pushing for the same end result: the passage of a national comprehensive clean energy and climate bill through the U.S. Congress this year.
The organization's strategy calls for creating a broad base of support through meetings like the one with Operation Free and its constituents at the Old Post. Montana Clean Energy Works field organizers like Derek Goldman and Benjamin Courteau have helped to coordinate dozens of meetings with farmers, fishermen, hunters and wildlife activists, and convinced them to work toward a specific outcome.
"We find those who are in support of the issue and connect them with their representatives by having them write letters and make phone calls," says Courteau. "We get businesses to sign up in support as well. We're really pressuring Congress to act on this and support the bill."
The bill in question was written by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and is set to be introduced April 26. It promises to be a comprehensive piece of legislation covering energy use and a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That plan includes new loans and tax credits for companies that manufacture clean energy technologies, and funding for research and development. While some states have made commitments to clean energy and climate change policy (Montana has committed to 15 percent renewable energy by 2015) this bill would signal the first national plan dealing with the issues.
Passing a bill that promotes clean energy is important to Montana because once the United States makes a commitment to go down the renewable energy path, entrepreneurs are more willing to make long-term investments in the industry. In Montana, where wind energy potential is ranked second in the nation, that could mean economic growth for the state.
"There's a lot of clean energy capital that's been sitting on the sidelines for years waiting for a national policy to shift toward a clean energy economy," says Goldman. "That's where national legislation that limits greenhouse gas pollution can really help send that signal to investors. For a long time clean energy sources have been at a financial disadvantage because of the vast amount of tax breaks and subsidies that the fossil fuel industry receives from Congress."
Bi-partisan support for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill gives it a higher likelihood of passing. But like so much bi-partisan legislation, there are bound to be compromises.
"Yeah there's going to be compromises in it," says Courteau, "but it might not be that bad. Most people agree that regardless of what's going on with the climate we need to get off foreign oil and produce clean energy, that we need to be innovators in the industry so we don't get out-competed by both our allies and our competitors, like China. That's enough common ground to push the bill forward with perhaps fewer compromises than health care had."