Blue Marble - December 2012

Climate Activist DeChristopher Barred From "Social Justice" Work

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 6:08 AM EST
Climate activist Tim DeChristopher at a February 2011 protest in Salt Lake City

Blue Marble readers will recall the story of Tim DeChristopher, a Utah climate activist who posed as a bidder at a December 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction. DeChristopher was the highest bidder on thousands of acres of public land, much of which bordered national parks and monuments. The 27-year-old bid $1.79 million on more than 22,000 acres that he had no intention of actually buying. The government took a hard line on his act of protest, bringing him up on felony charges for mucking up the auction. DeChristopher ended up with a two-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.

After serving 15 months in federal prison, DeChristopher is now living in a halfway house. (He's eligible for parole in April.) He's also allowed to work and intended to take a job with the social justice program at the local First Unitarian Church. But the feds intervened, the Deseret News reports:

DeChristopher had been offered a job with the church's social justice ministry, which would include working with cases of race discrimination, sex discrimination or other injustices that fall contrary to Unitarian beliefs.
"The Bureau of Prisons official who interviewed Tim indicated he would not be allowed to work at the Unitarian church because it involved social justice and that was what part of what his crime was," [DeChristopher's attorney Patrick] Shea said.

Yes, that's right—DeChristopher is barred from doing anything that might be construed as acting against injustice, because that's the whole reason they put him in jail in the first place. The newspaper reports that he's taken a job as a clerk at bookstore instead.

See our review of a new documentary about DeChristopher and our 2009 interview with him.

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Obama Blocks EU's Efforts To Limit Airplane Emissions

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 3:47 PM EST

Climate negotiators are meeting in Doha through the end of this week, but as I reported last week, no one expects anything big to come out of that meeting. The US negotiating team showed up at this year's conference claiming that our country is making an "enormous" effort to deal with climate change. "Those who don't follow what the US is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it's enormous," negotiator Jonathan Pershing told the folks in Doha.

Forgive me for being a cynic, but…come on. Let's start by pointing out that, as this most recent climate negotiation was revving up, President Obama was quietly signing a law that blocks US airlines from participating in the European Union's plan to curb emissions from airplanes.

The European Union initiated a new policy last January that requires airlines to buy carbon offsets for all international flights into and out of EU nations. But after the US threw a hissy fit about the plan, the EU agreed to delay implementation for a year in order to let the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency governing aviation policy, take a stab at the issue instead. (EU-based airlines still have to pay the carbon fee; only foreign carriers are exempt during the one-year delay.)

It wasn't a surprise that Obama signed the bill into law. The Senate and House voted to block US airlines from participating in the carbon offset program several months ago, and the departments of State and Transportation have been on the record opposing the move since last year. The White House says that it is "firmly committed to reducing harmful carbon pollution from civil aviation both domestically and internationally," but that it thinks that the EU's plan "is the wrong way to achieve that objective." Officials want ICAO to come up with a multilateral alternative.

But as Reuters points out, ICAO has been talking about how to deal with airline emissions for more than a decade. Perhaps the EU-US spat will increase the pressure to actually do something, but I'm not that convinced it will. The US and other opponents of the EU's plans are likely to block anything too significant within the ICAO as well.

This is also significant for the climate negotiations, as a carbon levy on planes and cargo ships is an option for long-term financing that negotiators have been discussing for some time now. Blocking the EU's efforts to make that happen isn't exactly a promising sign. Meanwhile, ICAO predicts that emissions from aviation will increase 300 to 700 percent by 2050.

It's also worth pointing out that the airlines are going to pass the cost onto consumers, and it's only expected to cost about $2.60 to $3.90 per ticket in the initial years. If you can afford to fly to Europe in the first place, chances are that's not going to kill you.

Science Museums Celebrate the Wonders of…Fracking?!

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 6:03 AM EST
An artist's rendering of the Perot Museum's fracking-themed Shale Voyager exhibit.

If oil companies designed the lessons contained in middle school science textbooks, it would be a national scandal. But helping to design scientific displays in natural history museums that host countless school field trips each year? Apparently, that's just fine.

Take the shiny new Perot Museum of Nature and Science (yes, as in former presidential candidate H. Ross), which opened in Dallas on Saturday. A $10-million donation from Hunt Petroleum (now owned by Exxon) helped finance the museum's Hunt Energy Hall, where exhibits include a larger-than-life drillbit cutting through a slab of faux rock, and a fracking-themed virtual reality experience known as the Shale Voyager. The New York Times' Edward Rothstein got a preview:

The Hunt Hall has its virtues. Some science centers treat environmentalism with almost devout attention, eager to drive home homilies, so it is a novelty to see it treated in this hall, as it is in other parts of the Perot, as one subject among many. It is refreshing as well to see some attention devoted to the engineering difficulties in the extraction of oil and get some idea of the science, however awkwardly presented.

But it is almost bizarre to see a major exhibit about energy whose central focus is on fracking and its machinery, even if the process ultimately transforms American energy production. We also get little sense of the controversies and debates that now fuel any examination of the energy issue. Even if the hall is meant to reflect Texan preoccupations, we learn in only a small part of a display case that "Texas produces more wind energy than any other state in the U.S."

The Perot Museum is far from the only one pumping up fossil fuels. Forth Worth's Museum of Science and History features the XTO Energy Gallery, named after the eponymous Barnett Shale fracking outfit. And in North Dakota, fracking billionaire Harold Hamm has shelled out $1.8 million to help construct a new wing of the North Dakota Heritage Center that will include an exhibit on—you guessed it—fracking.

These relationships might seem less problematic if the museums actually built firewalls between their fundraising and curatorial departments. I don't know how things work at the museums in Dallas and Fort Worth, but when I visited the North Dakota Heritage Center earlier this year, museum staff told me that they'd sought Hamm's input on the content of their energy exhibits. This brings to mind the kind of "science" espoused by the Creation Museum—the transmutation of opinion and faith into "fact" through the magic of pseudo-scientific dioramas.

Hamm and Perot Musuem donors T. Boone Pickens and Trevor Rees-Jones represent a new generation of philanthropically inclined Texas oil magnates. But while their names are showing up on a lot of buildings, they haven't begun to build the kind of legacies left by, say, the Whitneys or the de Menils—families that underwrote world-famous art museums in New York and Houston. Funding fracking exhibits might be a good PR move, but in the long run, the best PR is the kind that lacks an obvious political agenda.

CHARTS: To Fix Climate, World Needs to Boost Spending by 185 Percent

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Today Barbara Buchner, a market analyst for Climate Policy Initiative, arrived at the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar, not to offer solutions, but to figure out how we're going to pay the tab. In her hand is a new report from CPI adding up just how much money the world is spending on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The good news, she says, is that global climate investment is greater than ever before. The bad news: It still might not be nearly enough.

"The gap really is still large," she says.

Buchner's measuring stick is a report released this summer by the International Energy Agency showing that to stay within the internationally agreed-upon two degree celcius warming limit set in past iterations of the UN's climate talks, humanity will need to spend an additional $1 trillion a year between now and 2050 (on top of what current policies already stipulate) on climate-related investments like renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate-proofed infrastructure. Today's CPI report pegs current global climate investment at $364 billion, for 2010-11:

Chart by Tim McDonnellChart by Tim McDonnell

CHART: Only 0.17 Percent of Peer-Reviewed Papers Question Global Warming

| Sat Dec. 1, 2012 6:03 AM EST

James Lawrence PowellJames Lawrence Powell

The chart comes from James Lawrence Powell, a geologist, science-writer, and former professor, via DeSmogBlog. Powell reviewed 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific articles published between January 1991 and November 9, 2012 that mentioned "global warming" or "global climate change." The grand total of articles that questioned global warming or whether rising emissions are the cause: 24. That's 0.17 percent of all the literature on the topic.

Powell's review covers more papers than Naomi Oreskes' oft-cited 2004 study in Science

Feds Shutter Historic Northern California Oyster Farm

| Sat Dec. 1, 2012 6:03 AM EST
An oyster farm worker at Drakes Estero.

After years of highly publicized debate surrounding the fate of an oyster operation on Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Interior Department has decided against renewing the company's lease and has ordered it to vacate the property within 90 days. "After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to expire at the end of its current term and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976," interior secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generation who will enjoy this treasured landscape."

Salazar plans to designate 2,700 acres of the estuary, including 1,100 acres the farm operated on, as wilderness, the first such distinction for a marine area on the West Coast. Environmental groups—including the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the National Parks Conservation Association—and conservationists hailed the decision as a special victory for a parcel of water and land that hosts 90 species of endangered birds and the biggest colony of seals on the coast.

But owner Kevin Lunny, who bought the property in 2004 from another oyster operation, was predictably devastated. "It's disbelief and excruciating sorrow," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. His team of thirty will lose their jobs, and seven families who live on the property will be displaced. The region, which is also home to many other ranchers, will also lose a historic farm that has thrived on the inlet since the 1930s and well before the park existed. (Full disclosure: I worked as a fellow for the small, Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly Point Reyes Light newspaper, where my colleagues aggressively covered the saga and did not shy away from publishing editorials criticizing the government's role in the matter.)

Several high-profile oyster farm supporters have also criticized the way the National Park Service and the Department of Interior have handled the issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said she was "extremely disappointed" with Salazar's choice. "The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement," she said in a statement. Park Service officials have alleged that the farm's operations had a negative impact on marine life. But in 2009, a review by the National Academy of Sciences found that park officials "had made errors, selectively presented information, and misrepresented facts" in their studies. In August, the organization concluded that there was no evidence to support claims about effects on seals and shoreline habitat.

Nonetheless, the shacks, motor boats, and oysters racks will be removed. And the National Park Service will soon preside over a new swath of wilderness.