Backyard Talk

Kids Sue for Action on Climate Change

By Dylan Lenzen
Just in the last few years, groups of U.S. teenagers have begun filing lawsuits against state and federal governments in an effort to force governments to adequately respond to the threats posed to climate change. Some groups have actually been somewhat successful in doing so. The most monumental of these cases involves 21 children and renowned climate scientist James Hanson who are suing the Obama Administration and other federal agencies in an attempt to force serious action in response to climate change.
This most recent case involving the Obama administration is the result of multiple lawsuits filed by youth in all 50 states since 2011. Some of these cases have actually seen some success. Most recently, in Washington state, a group of 8 teenagers won their case against the Department of Ecology. The King County Supreme Court judge who heard the case did not agree with the teenagers’ argument in entirety, and as a result, did not order the Department of Ecology to draft rules for cutting carbon emissions. With that said the judge did state, “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”
The organization that has inspired these recent legal efforts is Our Children’s Trust. Their work has culminated with a lawsuit with the Obama administration. The argument that is made by these young people accuses the federal government of infringing upon the rights of young people. In their own words, “in causing climate change, the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” So even though we are already feeling the impacts of climate change today, it is clear that future generations will be most affected by climate injustice.
This effort that seeks to create change through judicial channels as opposed to traditional ones and comes at a very important time. With the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris, it will be incredibly important that domestic policies show that the U.S. is adequately responding to threat that the science of climate change has shown. Utilizing the judicial system, the arm of government that appears least effected by the lobbying power of deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests, could prove to be an important step in ensuring domestic action is taken to combat climate change.
Winning this lawsuit against the federal government will not be without challenges. It could take years before the case even reaches the Supreme Court. Even if it does make it to the Supreme Court, it is difficult to say whether five justices will support a decision in support of Our Children’s Trust. In addition, the influence of fossil fuel interests will be difficult to avoid. Most recently, three trade groups, that represent the likes of Exxon Mobile, Koch Industries, and others, have requested to be allowed to join the Obama administration as co-defendants in the case.
Despite these challenges, we can only hope for future generation that our government will take the threat of climate change as a serious matter.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk

Three Stories of Environmental Progress to Celebrate This Thanksgiving

With social crises escalating in the US and worldwide, it can be difficult to find news stories to give thanks for or to celebrate. This week, there are a few stories of environmental progress that shine a light in the darkness. These victories on the community, national and international levels prove that positive change, though sometimes slow in coming, is always on the horizon.
1) Community Victory in St. Louis: Just last week, Missouri delegates introduced legislation that would transfer the Bridgeton and West Lake Superfund Sites to the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the EPA. Community activists are hopeful that this change in authority will yield positive results for the communities near the site. As Lois Gibbs wrote in a statement last week, this move will take advantage of the Corps’ technical expertise, while shifting clean-up responsibility from Republic Services, which has managed the site under the EPA.  This is not the end of the road for St. Louis communities who are threatened by a burning landfill creeping slowly towards another site containing radioactive waste. “What really must be moved is not only the jurisdiction of this clean-up, but vulnerable families. This is the first step on a long road to recovery for the families involved and for the natural environment,” said Gibbs.
2) National Decision on Keystone XL: On November 6th, President Obama announced his decision reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which would have  transported crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The potential for spills endangered the crucially important freshwater Oglalla aquifer and threatened communities along the pipeline’s route. Additionally, the pipeline project would have perpetuated injustices against indigenous people in Alberta Canada whose homes have been destroyed by tar sands development, while increasing impacts from oil refineries in the Gulf. Though this is undoubtedly a moment to celebrate, recent NPR coverage makes the point that “thousands of miles of pipelines have been built in the same time that people have debated the 875-mile stretch that would have completed the Keystone XL. And more are being built right now.” Though we are far from transforming the energy economy, the Keystone decision is a symbolic victory and a sign of the power of grassroots organizing.
3) International Community Gearing Up for Climate Negotiations: Even as Paris is reeling from devastating terror attacks last week, the city is still preparing to host the COP21 UN Climate Summit, where over 150 world leaders will gather and attempt to hash out an international response to climate change. The meeting is expected to result in the first climate agreement since the failed Kyoto Protocol. Though rallies and marches associated with the conference have been canceled in the wake of the attacks, thus removing a powerful channel for citizen actions, the talks will proceed, and will hopefully culminate in a powerful act of international solidarity in a city at its most vulnerable moment.
In the midst of international crises, the needle continues to move on critically important environmental justice issues, from community pollution to climate change. It’s the perfect time to give thanks for the community members and advocates who are fighting for change on these and other issues – to express gratitude for grassroots action that continues to guide the way forward to a more just world.

Backyard Talk

Racism, Environmental Injustice, and the U.S. Farm Bill

By Dylan Lenzen
A new report by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute indicates that the United States’ most important piece of farm legislation plays an enormous role in maintaining structural racism and environmental injustice. This important piece of legislation, that is the U.S. Farm Bill, is enormous, providing massive amounts of federal dollars for agricultural production, as well as over $700 billion for food stamps. According to the report, the Farm Bill has played an important role in corporate consolidation at all levels of food production. For example, large-scale farms control 49.7% of all production value, while only representing 4.7% of all U.S. farms. This mass consolidation, from the production to retail, has lead to incredible power for corporate power in our society.
The power of corporate interests involved in the creation of the U.S. Farm Bill has resulted in numerous negative consequences for minority and low-income communities around the country. One of these consequences has been the depression of minority food worker wages. This includes those working as migrant laborers in agricultural fields of California to those employed at fast food restaurants. Food workers of color make roughly $6000 less than the average white food worker and many migrant farmworkers make less than minimum wage for their strenuous efforts. These low wages for all food workers have lead to incredible rates of food insecurity. And, as has been discussed on the CHEJ blog before, the result of overwhelming minority makeup of low-wage farm labor has been that people of color experience much higher levels of toxic pesticides that they are exposed to while toiling in agricultural fields.
The Farm Bill also fails to adequately address the structural inequality found in our society. According the U.C. Berkeley study, “as of 2013, 14.3% of US households—17.5 million households, roughly 50 million persons—were food insecure.” In addition, Black, Latino/a, low-income, single women/men households represent an overwhelming proportion of those who are food insecure. Despite rising food insecurity, the amount of money allocated for food stamps (under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has decreased in recent editions of the Farm Bill.

As if these negative consequences do not already demonstrate the environmental injustice of the Farm Bill, we must consider the contribution of the current industrialized, fossil fuel-intense form of agriculture promoted by the Farm Bill to global climate change. This is important, as we know that communities of color, considering broader social inequity, are much more vulnerable to the effect of climate change. The high levels of economic and food insecurity, in these communities, among other factors, will mean that they will likely suffer the most as our atmosphere continues to warm. Given that agricultural production contributes 9% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, climate concerns must factor into the type of food production that we promote with the billions of dollars that the farm bill offers.
While there are certainly many factors that contribute to environmental injustice and social inequality in our society, altering monolithic and impactful pieces of legislation, such as the U.S. Farm Bill, appear to be great starting points if we are to address these issues in the future.
Find out more from the Haas Institute

Backyard Talk

Environmental Racism Prevalent in Brandywine, Maryland

By: Katie O’Brien
Brandywine is  a town of less than 7,000 people located in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  The population in the county is 60% African American and they are all victims of environmental racism. Brandywine is a 21 square mile town is already home to one large gas-fired power plant. A few months ago, not one, but TWO additional gas fired power plants were  approved to be built in the town. The neighboring towns already have a gas-fired  power plant with another under construction. The area will have FIVE gas-fired power plants in the future,  making the Brandywine area have more fossil fuel power plant capacity than 99.9% of the country according to the Energy Justice Network.

The area already has unacceptable air quality and was declared by the EPA to be in “non-attainment” for ground level ozone pollution. According to the EPAs ozone health page, breathing ozone can cause a decrease in lung function, inflammation of the airways, and induction of respiratory symptoms such as coughing, throat irritation, pain and burning while breathing, and chest tightness, among others. It even states that ozone is associated with increased mortality. In some studies on lab animals, long-term exposure to ozone could cause “morphological changes that could be a market of chronic respiratory disease”. It is crazy to think that in an area where there are already non-attainable levels of ozone, that two more ozone producing power plants were approved to be built, especially with the clear information from the EPA about the dangers of ozone exposure.
Residents of the area are just learning of the power plants approval. Many of the local newspapers in the area shut down in recent years. When residents of the area found out about the proposed sites, they requested an extension on public comment to alert more people; they were given “tiny legal notice in a newspaper, which was inadequate to notify people of public hearings”. Since the sites have already been approved residents are having a hard time trying to fight back against the power plants. The surrounding communities in the Brandywine area are all victims of environmental racism and their rights are being violated with the construction of these gas-fired plants.
To learn more:

Backyard Talk

The 2016 Presidential Candidates Stance on Climate Change

Climate change is a growing concern; almost 75 percent of Americans today favor a government action for a safer, greener future. President Obama showed initiative against climate change when he introduced the historic Clean Power Plan this year, which set the first ever national carbon emission limit on the electric power sector. Climate change is the result of an increased average global temperature, where one of the major factors causing this warming is from emissions from non-renewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels and coal. Recently, Met Office data showed that the global annual average temperature has officially increased by 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and will continue increasing if no action is taken against climate change. This is alarming as todays average global temperature is now halfway to the internationally agreed critical point of 2 degree Celsius that is deemed the limit where climate change effects are intolerably high. With climate change a very real threat, the upcoming presidential campaign candidates’ stance on global warming could shape who wins office.
Presidential Candidates
All democrat candidates have acknowledged the existence of man-made climate change; however, each take different responses when it comes to environmental policies. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders seek to resolve climate change with already released proposals. As part of her first acts in office, Clinton would involve generating 33 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable source, installing a half- billion solar panels, and to power every home with carbon-free sources all by 2020. Bernie Sanders stated he would tax emissions on oil and coal burning to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Sanders was also just endorsed by the national environmental group, Friends of the Earth, as a reward for Sanders’ pledge for climate change action, where 2 million activists claim to promote the nominee for president. Martin O’Malley said that clean energy would be his number one priority as president, pledging to create the Clean Energy Jobs Crops to reduce emissions and restore forests. As for the 15 Republican candidates, only Bobby Jindal has made specific proposals to reduce emissions but through small scale changes and not by building on the Obama administration’s environmental policies.
According to President Obama, climate change denial threatens national security as it “undermines the readiness of our forces”. The EPA already knows the damages expected nationwide by climate change. Americans in the Southwest and Great Plains can expect severe droughts. The Southeast can face more intense hurricanes and increased floods from rising sea levels. The Midwest and Northeast face economic damage from reduced agriculture yields and intense heat waves. The Northwest and Tropics can experience a blow to the delicate ecosystem with increased pests and reduced biodiversity.
The Natural Resource Defense Council released a survey that showed fifty-five percent of Latinos were “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about climate change. This high level of concern is due to the Latino overrepresentation in locations that are already experiencing effects caused by climate change. Latinos in California are seeing more wild fires and extreme droughts and those in Florida are seeing an increase in sea-levels and frequency of hurricanes. Another survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 84 percent of African-Americans in Atlanta, Cleveland, and Philadelphia want to see action by the federal government to address climate change as exposures from pollutants from non-renewable energy sources are leading to a high rate of asthma. Increase competition on already stressed water sources, threats to infrastructures from rising sea levels and erosions, and devastating heat waves can threaten human health and wellbeing, making climate change and important issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.

Backyard Talk


Bill Gates’ net worth is estimated to be $79.7 billion and his worth just seems to grow every year. Known as the world’s richest man, Gates is also listed as the sixth most powerful person in the world. He and his wife Melinda run the Gates Foundation their goal is to reduce inequity and improve the lives of people in poorer countries.

But what about America? What about the innocent people in which his investment company, Cascade Investments, is making him even more money, at the expense of innocent children who are made sick and dying from chemical/radioactive materials?

My mother often told me that it is wonderful, honorable to support others who need help, but always remember charity begins at home.

Bill and Melinda are doing extraordinary work in poor countries, but their money to do that work is coming from their investments like, Republic Services where they have personally invested 2.9 Billion dollars. Gates Foundation has divested from Republic Services but Bill and Melinda have not.

Families with children in St. Louis have watched helplessly as their children developed cancer and some have died. Parents believe their children health problems are due to Republic Services burning and radioactive Superfund site. The Missouri health authorities found an over 300% increase in children’s brain cancer near the Republic site. This cancer is preventable.. .avoidable… by helping people move away. Today they are trapped. Families can’t live in their homes, sell their homes or afford to pay rent or mortgages somewhere else. These are working people, many not earning a living wage.

Bill could direct his investment company to use their power as shareholders to purchase the homes of innocent families that surround the burning landfill. Once the fire is put out and the radioactive materials cleaned up Republic can resell the homes and reduce their costs. It is anticipated that the fire will burn for another four years and the plan to clean up the radioactive wastes is also far into the future.

I thought at one time, that maybe Bill and Melinda just didn’t know. As parents of three children Jennifer, Phoebe, and Rory I thought they could relate to the fears the parents in St. Louis face every day to protect their most precious asset their children. Unfortunately they do know and I guess don’t care. Recently, they sold all of their Foundation’s stock in Republic Services. A good first step but far from what’s needed. Their personal stock of almost three billion is still earning dividends off the back of little children and hard working parents. We believe it was the petition drive that CHEJ did with the local group Just Moms STL in St. Louis, Missouri that brought the problem to their attention. Maybe it did, we’ll never know.

Today, it’s clear that Bill and Melinda know there is a problem in St. Louis, and they don’t want the public face of the Gates Foundation to be associated with that Superfund site. With this knowledge, they continue to profit from Republic Services, which in turn continues to place children in harm’s way. Bill and Melinda have made a decision to not take action with their personal wealth.

I can only ask, and hope others who read this ask, won’t you please reconsider your decision? Please, give a little charity at home. You are the richest man and one of the most powerful in the world and have said you want to improve the lives of people in poor countries, how about America? You can use your power in the Republic Services Board room to vote to move the innocent families or buy the properties yourself. The child, with brain cancer in the photo, is worth helping.

Backyard Talk

Fossil Fuel Companies Causing More Than Just Environmental Damage

By Vesta Davis

Many people understand the damage done to communities by the fossil fuel industry, especially now when discussions on the current climate crisis are at an all-time high. It is hard to find a current news outlet that doesn’t mention one of the key words: “climate change,” “sustainability,” or “global warming,” at least once a day—even if they’re denying the validity of them.

While this is all well and good, there are thousands of initiatives working for environmental justice that go unacknowledged. And even further, international energy companies often violate basic human rights of local communities, and never suffer the consequences.

This past summer, a Federal court ruled to allow a case filed in 2001 against the Exxon Mobil Corporation to proceed. The lawsuit was filed by 11 Indonesian citizens after numerous human rights violations were committed by the local Exxon employees. According to the plaintiffs, the Exxon security guards beat, sexually assaulted, and murdered local villagers on numerous occasions.

The Mobil Corporation first began gas drilling in the rural Aceh region of Indonesia in the early 1970s. In the late 1990s, the Exxon and Mobil corporations merged and established four natural gas sites in Aceh. However, after the fall of President Suharto 1998, tension and violence between rebel groups and local authorities grew. The increase of foreign companies, workers, and technology seemed only to escalate matters, especially since Exxon hired the local military and police forces as security for each plant. Between the years 1999 – 2001, there were approximately 50 separate incidents of gunmen hijacking company pick-up trucks and vans, and two air planes were shot down when attempting to land. Local buses carrying employees from surrounding villages to the Exxon site were also targeted by land mines.

This violence caused Exxon to shut down three of the four natural gas plants. However, Exxon maintained the employment of the local military even though they knew there was extreme violence occurring between them and the locals. According to the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, there have been hundreds of documented incidents of rape, torture, and murder committed by the soldiers.

While Exxon is not to blame for all of this violence, locals do hold the company partially responsible. The industry pays the soldiers, provides them with weapons, and also instills them with a sense of power and entitlement. They are also permitted to use the companies digging equipment which has supposedly been used to create mass graves.

Situations like this are more common that one may think. Many western energy companies have established themselves amidst turmoil in international communities. For instance, the Canadian mining company Turquoise Hill Resources in Myanmar, the gasoline retailer Unocal—now owned by Chevron—in Burma, and the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project funded by Exxon, Chevron, and the World Bank.

In 2013, a case went to the Supreme Court in which a group of Nigerian citizens sued the Shell oil company for “aiding and abetting” violence and murder in Ogoniland, an area of Nigeria popular for oil drilling. Apparently, when Shell set up camp, locals responded by organizing protests against the environmental destruction. Shell then hired the Nigerian Government to stop the demonstrations. Extreme violence, murder, rape, and illegal arrests ensued throughout the 1990s. The plaintiffs in this case allege that Shell representatives perpetuated the violence by supplying food, transportation, and compensation to the military forces.

The case was denied by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that due to the “Alien Tort Statute”, the United States system was not entitled to intervene. Because of this ruling, many were shocked when the Indonesian case passed through the Federal system. Human rights lawyer, Agnieszka Fryszman, claims that it is probably the first international case involving a major United States company and “foreign misconduct” to be approved by a Federal court.

Exxon has continuously denied the allegations that they are involved with the violence in Aceh. They state that they are trying to “maintain some neutrality.” However, even if they are not intentionally involved, they are still complicit. When an international energy corporation is present in an impoverished or indigenous community, a feeling of dependency and reliance is created. Exxon may wish to stay in denial about their role in the situation, but in environments such as this, staying neutral is just as toxic.

Backyard Talk

President Obama to Make Decision on Keystone XL

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April 2014 Keystone XL Protest in Washington, DC Source: Indigenous Environmental Network's November 3rd E-Blast

By Kaley Beins

Few environmental concerns have received more media attention than TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline, a project designed to transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada across 840 miles of the United States to Houston, Texas. Supporters of the project claim it will provide economic growth and domestic energy security, but critics have lambasted Keystone XL for its potential effects on climate change and the possibility of spills.

In addition to the environmental concerns connected to the pipeline, the proposed plan for Keystone XL disregards the sacred land of multiple indigenous groups. As Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) explained in IEN’s November 3rd E-Blast,  “This dirty tar sands pipeline has met immense organized resistance from the Dene, Cree and Metis first nations at its source, thru [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sic] the traditional lands of the Oceti Sakowin, also known as the Great Sioux Nation, and from the Ponca people of the southern great plains. This grassroots effort, coupled with alliances with non-native landowners helped the fight against Keystone XL become the marquee fight for the US Climate Movement.” Keystone XL is the very definition of an environmental justice issue.

After President Obama’s February 2015 veto of the Congressional bill that would have approved the pipeline, TransCanada and other supporters of Keystone XL have been trying to find other ways to pass the necessary legislation. This past Monday, November 2nd, TransCanada petitioned Secretary of State John Kerry to ask the U.S. State Department to pause its review of Keystone XL pending Nebraska’s approval of a portion of the route. Despite previously complaining of delays in the approval process,  TransCanada is now asking for further delays, leading to speculation that it is trying to push the Keystone XL decision to the next presidential administration. This political move is significant as support for the pipeline is split directly along party lines; the Democratic nominees have come out against the pipeline, while the Republican nominees are in favor of it. However, on Wednesday the State Department decided to continue with its evaluation of the Keystone XL application.

Additionally, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest announced that President Obama plans to make a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline before the end of his term. As December’s Paris Climate Summit approaches and Obama solidifies his legacy I hope that he upholds his commitment to addressing climate change, in this case by rejecting TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.


Backyard Talk

Clean Power Plan, Community Engagement and Environmental Justice

In August, the EPA and President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon pollution from power plants as a means to stem the advance of climate change. The plan introduces the first national standards the U.S. has ever seen for carbon pollution, while customizing goals for each state. If the plan is successful it will not only greatly reduce carbon pollution emitted from U.S. plants; it will also contribute to incentivizing a clean energy transition in the United States, while improving air quality by reducing loads of soot and hazardous chemicals emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels.

According to the EPA, the construction of the plan has involved “years of unprecedented outreach and public engagement.” EPA plans to continue its discussions with communities now that the final plan is in place, and November is a particularly busy month for this initiative. During the next month, EPA will hold four two-day public hearings at locations across the country. Hearings will be held in Pittsburgh (November 12-13), Denver (November 16th-17th), Washington, DC (November 18th-19th), and Atlanta (November 19th-20th). These hearings will give community members and other stakeholders the chance to raise concerns or arguments relating to the power plan. Registration opened several days ago, and can be found at the EPA’s website. Following the meetings, the public comment period for the plan will remain open through January 16th.

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Many of the environmental justice provisions in the plan were added as a result of input from environmental justice advocates. This chart was featured in a article by Jalonne L. White-Newsome of "WE ACT for Environmental Justice"

According to the Clean Power Plan fact sheet, EPA will require states to document how they are actively enhancing community engagement during the implementation of the plan, particularly engagement with low-income communities, minority communities, and tribal communities. This requirement attempts to establish a channel of dialogue by which community members can learn about state activities to realize the goals of the plan, while providing their own input. The EPA will also monitor air quality impacts on vulnerable populations and provide easily accessible data on emissions via a community resource web page.

So far, the plan has drawn mixed praise and criticism from environmental and environmental justice organizations. The Sierra Club praised the plan’s inclusion of environmental justice provisions as well as community resources. However, they pointed out that the plan does not include a consideration of cumulative impacts; that the plan allows cap-and-trade programs to be used, which may exacerbate the existence of pollution hot spots in environmental justice communities; that waste-burning may increase as a result of the plan; and that the requirements for compliance with the Civil Rights Act during plan implementation are insufficient. The Energy Justice Network echoed concerns about cap-and-trade programs and Civil Rights Act compliance, and urged EPA to close loopholes related to nuclear power, natural gas, and biomass burning. WE ACT for Environmental Justice praised the plan as an ambitious “step in the right direction,” and assured that environmental justice advocates across the country would continue to speak up and impact the implementation process just as they shaped the original plan.

As the EPA and state agencies move forward with implementation, this involvement from EJ activists will be critical in ensuring that the plan’s provisions for environmental justice and community involvement are carried forth, and that the lingering inadequacies of the plan are addressed. Hopefully, the November meetings will be a continuation of this unprecedented process of community engagement and outreach.