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As Gov. Jerry Brown neared the end of his last State of the State speech on Thursday, Jan. 25, he invoked a name that has become a frequent theme: August Schuckman, his own great-grandfather, who left Germany in 1849 and “sailed to America on a ship named Perseverance.”

The 79-year-old Democrat cast his ancestor’s journey—and the ship’s poetic name—as a metaphor for California in an era of natural disasters and deep rifts with the federal government. “We, too, will persist,” he said, “against the storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.”

Brown, delivering his 16th such speech during an unprecedented four-term tenure as California governor, contrasted California with the direction the United States is heading under Republican President Donald Trump—touting the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its embrace of Obamacare. He reiterated his commitment to two major infrastructure projects he’s long championed: a high-speed train that would eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a massive tunnel to move water from the north end of the state to the south. And he gave an impassioned plea for legislators to look at the big picture of California’s criminal-justice system instead of passing new laws in response to crimes ripped from the headline.

Democrats praised Brown for an optimistic speech that demonstrated the hallmarks of his leadership. Even some Republicans offered mild praise: Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle called Brown “one of the most conservative Democrats in this place” for his relative prudence. But he criticized the governor for signing laws, like the gas tax, that raised the cost of living in California.

What Brown didn’t mention: the fact that California has the highest poverty rate in the nation; that housing prices that have skyrocketed beyond affordability for many residents; and that the state’s tax structure exposes it to perpetual cycles of boom and bust.

Also absent were the obscure intellectual references that have studded his past speeches—although he did contrast the state’s bloated penal code with the Ten Commandments.

His also struck some themes that are vintage Jerry Brown. He cited California’s recent wildfires and mudslides, as well as the Doomsday Clock, echoing past speeches in which he predicted environmental disaster. He advocated remedies to slow global warming—like clean cars and renewable energy—that resembled ideas he espoused when he was first elected governor more than four decades ago.

“We should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live,” Brown said to his 2018 audience. “We can’t fight nature. We have to learn to get along with her.”

Yet as he looked forward for California, he also looked back at his own family history. When Brown was first sworn in, in 1975, he rarely talked about his ancestry. As the years mounted, however, he has increasingly turned to his family-origin stories to illustrate his belief in California’s potential.

Now the Brown family’s California Dream is a common trope in his rhetoric. He talks about the great-grandfather on the Perseverance, the grandmother who was the youngest of eight children, and the father, Pat Brown, who preceded him in the governor’s office.

Some of that reflection may be the natural consequence of age. But it also reveals a governor more assured of his own accomplishments and less fearful that he’s riding on his father’s coattails, said political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. A professor at University of Southern California, she’s been following Brown’s career since he ran for the Los Angeles Community College board in 1969.

The younger Brown first moved into the governor’s office less than a decade after his father had moved out. During those first two terms in office, Jeffe said, Brown went to great lengths to distinguish himself from his father.

“He did not want to live in his shadow,” she said. “Jerry wanted to build his own legacy, his own philosophy of governance.”

His early speeches reflect the schism. Brown—a 37-year-old bachelor at the time, who famously slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment—opened his inaugural address in 1975 with a quick quip about his dad. “My father thought I wasn't going to make it,” to become governor, he said. “But here I am.” He went on to talk about problems with environmental and land-use rules, and the need to provide a better system for funding schools and farmworker rights.

For the next six years, Brown used his State of the State speeches to float ideas: developing more clean energy, building more prisons, making housing more affordable, putting a satellite into space, and overhauling the bail system. Then, as now, he acknowledged the uncertainty of the future and urged lawmakers not to spend too much.

But near the end of his first two terms, Brown’s 1982 State of the State speech reminisced about his father, his grandmother and his great-grandfather Schuckman, who traveled the plains from St. Louis to Sacramento during the Gold Rush.

“Let me read to you from the diary that was kept during that trek westward,” Brown said then, recounting in detail their journey across deserts, through rivers and over mountains. He spoke of oxen dying of thirst and wagons going up in flames.

“These were men and women who matched our mountains, and in not too many years, built these walls,” Brown said. “We are bearers of that powerful tradition. It still drives our people and the hundreds from foreign who arrive in our state each day.”

Most people assumed, of course, that 1982 speech would be Brown’s final State of the State. But after serving as Democratic Party chair, Oakland mayor and attorney general, he reclaimed the governorship in the November 2010 election. In his inaugural address in January 2011, Brown again read from Schuckman’s diary.

“We can only imagine what it took for August Schuckman to leave his family and home and travel across the ocean to America and then across the country—often through dangerous and hostile territory—in a wagon train. But come he did, overcoming every obstacle,” Brown said.

In 2015, Brown reflected on his father’s leadership in ways he never did in those speeches during his early years as governor.

“The issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we still grapple with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons,” Brown said. “So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead for 2018 and beyond, Brown said on Thursday: “All of us—whatever our party or philosophy—have a role in play in defending and advancing our democracy. Our forebears set the example.”

Now he’s planning retirement on the rural land in Colusa County where Schuckman settled in the 1800s. Though Brown’s upbringing is very different from most Californians, his family stories can make the austere governor more relatable, said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant who works for the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.

“It’s a story that I think a lot of legislators can relate to,” Salazar. “When you look back at your familial history and the context in which they came to California, I think that’s something that we all can connect with.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Like a lot of small towns in the West, my town of Ashland, Ore., is nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by conifer forests. The forests grow on public lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and last year, as in many recent years, there were fires on those lands. The town of Ashland was not threatened, but our valley filled with thick, eye-burning smoke for weeks at a time.

It was miserable. Outdoor theater and music events were cancelled, drastically affecting the summer tourist season, which is critical for our economy. Folks who would usually be out hiking, camping, fishing, birding and rafting stayed indoors. Parents kept their kids inside. Everyone got cranky. We’ve never had a summer with smoke as bad as this.

Understandably, people don’t want to go through this again next summer—or ever. Southern Californians can relate thanks to all of the devastating fall fires in the area. And so the search is on for solutions.

Some are taking this opportunity to advocate for drastic changes in public-lands forest management. The primary vehicle for this effort is the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” H.R. 2936, often called the Westerman bill for its primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. In the name of making forests “resilient” to fire, it would promote logging by sharply curtailing existing environmental laws.

Among other provisions, it would restrict citizen involvement in public-lands management by limiting legal challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws; greatly expand “categorical exclusions” in areas of up to 10,000 acres where logging and post-fire salvage could occur without any environmental assessment; and eliminate the “survey and manage” program which provides data essential for informed forest management. This truly radical bill has passed the House and awaits consideration by the Senate.

Let’s be generous for a moment. Let’s say that the Westerman bill is not a cynical attempt to exploit anxiety about fire to achieve otherwise unattainable amounts of logging, long sought by the timber industry. Let’s assume that it’s a genuine attempt to solve the problem of fire—which, of course, implies: (1) that fire is a problem; and (2) that it can be solved.

Most Western conifer forests, except those along the rain-drenched Pacific Coast, are adapted to frequent fires. That is true of Southern California, as well as my region of southern Oregon, where studies of tree rings have shown that fires historically returned to a piece of ground every 15-20 years or so. Most of those fires were relatively low intensity, and many were likely set deliberately by Native Americans, who made sophisticated use of fire as a land-management tool. These fires cleared out dense thickets and fallen limbs and maintained a relatively open forest structure in many areas.

Decades of fire suppression, coupled with logging that has replaced complex mixed-age forests with uniform-aged stands and tree plantations, has certainly made things worse, increasing the likelihood of severe, stand-replacing fires. But that is increasingly overshadowed by another factor affecting wildland fire frequency and severity: climate change. There is not a single mention of the role of climate change in the Westerman bill, so it looks like I was too generous to set aside that whole cynical-exploitation thing.

Much research now supports the correlation between climate change and fire seasons that start earlier and end later, with more days of extreme “fire weather.” Such fire weather led to the devastating fires of 2017 in Northern California. Those fires burned at least 245,000 acres, destroyed almost 9,000 buildings, and cost more than $3 billion. They were almost entirely on private land, not on national forests. The severity of those fires had nothing to do with a lack of logging. The same goes for the recent fires in Southern California—for which the damage is still being tallied.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we can find a “solution” to wildlands fire and the smoke that comes with it. Such thinking denies fire its place as a natural and inevitable part of this environment where we have chosen to live. Our forests need fire, and there is no way we can exclude it. Instead of trying to log our way out of fire danger, we need to adapt ourselves to the reality of living in this fire-adapted landscape. We can, and should, practice “fireproof” landscaping around our homes, and carry out larger fuels-reduction projects in high-risk areas like the wildland-urban interface at the edge of our towns.

But we can’t “solve” fire here in the West any more than Florida can “solve” hurricanes. Both are natural phenomena—and both are bound to get worse with unchecked climate change. Our best hope of a future with ecologically appropriate forest fires and tolerable levels of smoke is to take immediate action to limit climate change.

What do you say, Congress: Want to focus on a real problem for a change?

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and forensic biologist in Oregon.

Published in Community Voices

BONN, Germany—The camera and lights switched on, and Ole Torp, the Charlie Rose of Norway, leaned in, silver hair flashing, and posed his first question to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Is the world going to hell?”

“Yes,” Brown answered swiftly.

The interview, taped last week in Oslo, was declared a fabulous success, one the television audience would quite enjoy.

On a nearly two-week swing through Europe—starting at the Vatican and ending at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn—Brown offered a bleak appraisal of the global future: We are on a trajectory toward hell. It’s a headlong rush to a very unpleasant outcome. Mankind is on the chopping block.

Yet Brown dazzled. His message—the planet is burning up, and our oil-driven way of life must change—brought Vatican scientists to their feet. European parliamentarians in Brussels swooned, calling him a warrior. In Oslo, an international group of scientists paid Brown their highest compliment: inviting him to their inner sanctum for a day-long “dialogue,” a dreary recitation of the looming crash of spaceship Earth. Students in Stuttgart, inheritors of the mess Brown describes, mobbed the 79-year-old for selfies.

It wasn’t all adulation, all the time. A rebuke from a couple of parliamentarians in Brussels led to a sharp exchange over the effect of climate-change policies on the poor. And hecklers tried to shout down the governor during a speech in Bonn as they protested his oil policies.

But the criticism did little to deter Brown, who was on message throughout the trip: Climate change is a serious threat, but California is doing its part—and, especially, come to San Francisco next year for a climate conference that gets things accomplished.

In the absence of climate policy from the U.S. government, or recognition that human activity has played a role in warming the world, Brown has become a de facto climate leader—Al Gore 2.0, as an Afghan journalist here observed offhandedly. During his November trip, Brown was repeatedly called on to voice an opinion on President Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a taped interview that “Trump better get on board or get out of the way.” On most other occasions, Brown largely held his fire, perhaps not wanting to give the president’s arguments any oxygen.

Mostly, he focused on burnishing California’s “green” reputation—and his own, as he looks ahead to life after Sacramento, a subject he won’t go near. Brown reminded his audiences that the state has the nation’s strictest fuel standards, subsidizes electric cars, and demands the most energy-efficient buildings. He held sessions with members of the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 nations, states and provinces that have pledged to reduce carbon emissions and work with each other to meet the goals of the U.N.’s 2015 Paris climate agreement. That includes a commitment to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The group, which Brown helped create, is gaining in heft, with several new members acquired during Brown’s trip. According to the coalition, it represents more than 1 billion people and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Brown argues that climate-change policy is local as much as national or global, and that mayors, governors and regional officials can bring about significant change. That argument swayed the government of Fiji—which currently holds the rotating presidency of the conference—to name Brown to the position of special adviser for states and regions. That position did not give the governor access to the negotiating table, where the U.S. delegation and others are hammering out implementation rules for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Brown’s stated purpose for going to Europe was to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. At every stop, officials said they found power in his message.

Sandy Pitcher, the chief executive of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources for the state of South Australia, described Brown as “authentic.”

“He’s channeling something like the tough lesson you have to hear and should hear, ‘You’ll thank me for it later,’” she said. “I don’t think we have someone like him in Australia in the public discourse doing what he’s doing.”

Her state belongs to Under2. These so-called subnationals—or “supernationals” as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said here—will put on their own summit next September in San Francisco. The meeting, sanctioned by the U.N., will bring together nations and industry and require each entity to report its annual emissions and set a reduction goal.

The inclusion of businesses is unique. Brown said that businesses—some of them big carbon-emitters—could potentially provide the technology to solve pressing climate problems. And their presence can send a signal that California is open to, and for, business.

Now Brown and his staff are mostly back in Sacramento. It’s likely to be a hard landing for the governor, leaving the mostly enveloping warmth of like-minded people to tangle with a sometimes-unruly Legislature and get back to the arduous job of managing California.

He returns to a state where not everyone is in the thrall of the climate-crusader message. Critics in the environmental-justice movement, for example, say laws to reduce pollution have not yet made lives better in many low-income communities still plagued by toxic air, water and soil—that Sacramento’s good intentions seem to be scrubbing clean every backyard but theirs.

With legislative priorities looming for his final year in office, Brown claims to not have a comprehensive idea of what he wants to accomplish.

“I don’t have an agenda for next year. I don’t even think about it,” he told CALmatters in an interview during the conference that was only partly disrupted when Arnold Schwarzenegger, also in town for the conference, stopped by to chat.

“I’m a step-by-step kind of guy,” Brown said. “We have continuing work to increase the rehabilitative character of our prisons and jails. We have to up our capacity to transform lives instead of re-imbed and reinforce antisocial behavior. That will require effort, and mental health programs.”

Much of the environmental legislation he has championed is now on the books. With enormous political effort during the summer, he was able to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030. What’s next? Brown supports an electricity delivery system that spans the West, offering better integration and sharing of renewable power, among other benefits.

Such a plan would cede state decision-making to a regional authority, and Brown admits the highly complex project may take a while.

Control of the grid is a thorny issue. For example, states have varying requirements for the use of renewable energy, and California would hesitate to import coal-fired power from elsewhere. Working out such elements is complex and painstaking.

“We don’t get instant coffee,” he said. “I didn’t do everything the first year. Each year, there are more things that become possible because we’ve done other things. It’s a good idea, and it will come.”

First things first: another summit, which Brown, in his grumpy fashion, said will be more of an anti-summit.

“There’s a lot of talking and there’s a lot of eating at these things,” Brown said. “I’ve talked enough. I want to get something done.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's pumpkin-spice-free weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips gets its dossiers mixed up; Red Meat hops in the time machine with Milkman Dan; Jen Sorenson looks at "politicization"; The K Chronicles has a revelation about squirrels; and This Modern World is in a state of denial.

Published in Comics

On this week's action-packed weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles has an issue with the Emmys; This Modern World looks into a parallel Trump universe; Jen Sorenson examines white poverty; Apoca Clips shows Trumpy receiving visits from Harvey, Irma, Maria and others; and Red Meat goes through with an agreed-upon mercy killing.

Published in Comics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the Forest Service as well as several agricultural and food-related research agencies, recently told its staffers to avoid using the term “climate change.” The business-as-usual term “weather extremes” was recommended instead.

While dropping the word “climate” may seem like a defeat for those of us who remain convinced that human influences are harming the global environment, this federal directive made in the spirit of changing the narrative might be good advice. Could it be that the term itself has failed us?

Suppose, for a moment, you are in a restaurant, and someone yells, “Help, she’s having a heart attack!” Being a good person, you would no doubt spring into action, call 9-1-1, look for aspirin or a defibrillator, and so on.

Suppose that same person had instead yelled, “Help, she’s having a myocardial infarction!” You would probably react the same way … but wouldn’t you perhaps pause for just a second? Unless you’re a medical professional, wouldn’t you first have to engage in some type of internal translation? I would. The ailing woman might get better care at a hospital with such detailed wording, but the immediate danger she faces in the restaurant hides behind the wrong language.

Here’s the problem: Although most Americans today say that climate change is a real and serious issue, most probably don’t understand what the term “climate” means. The difference between climate and weather, the moving target of climate averages, and the intangibility of climate experience all make “climate” a problematic word to rally around. I know the Northwest has a rainy climate, and because I experience getting wet frequently, I know in my bones that this is true. The same goes for Palm Springs: You have a warm climate. But, alas, the word “climate” can become jargon.

Yes, the climate is changing, but it is an acute global environmental crisis—global warming—that is touching the realities of daily life for millions of people around the world.

Houston just turned into a gigantic lake. Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, is on the march across the Caribbean, one of three hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico as of this writing. Furnace Creek, Calif., the hottest place on Earth, posted its hottest July on record. Unprecedented peat fires burn in Greenland. Extreme weather events across the globe abound, and they are tied not just to generalized climate change, but directly to heat. The term “global warming” comes with baggage stuffed full of 30 years of politics, but for now it is the best we have.

Both global warming and climate change been used to describe what’s happening to the planet since the 1970s. Conventionally, global warming refers specifically to the rise of average global temperatures, and climate change refers more broadly, to shifts in prevailing environmental conditions, including the odd spot that is getting colder.

As the 1990s and 2000s saw popular culture build concern for global warming, the issue got entangled in bitter politics. Because “global warming” was accused of sounding alarmist, some researchers hoped that the term “climate change” would sound more scientific.

But climate change has been the wrong phrase for the job, because it is too scientific. It has failed to provoke urgency and been easy to pooh-pooh. (It’s probably not a coincidence that a Republican political strategist recommended using the term “climate change,” because he said “it is less frightening than ‘global warming.’”)

“Change” is a neutral term that does not convey that humanity is the culprit behind what’s happening. After all, it is entirely correct that the climate is always changing—a frequent retort from climate-change deniers. Furthermore, many shifts caused by global warming are not climatic—think sea-level rise, ocean acidification and melting glaciers. This further confuses the terminology.

Al Gore has recently taken to talking instead about the “climate crisis.” While I find this a laudable step, there is still a challenge with the word climate—we just can’t touch the climate. “Global weirding” and “global environmental change” both offer alternatives, but both have failed to catch on.

If I look south outside my window, I can see a small patch of dirty blue ice on a mountain in Denali National Park. Just eight years ago, when I first came here, this patch was significantly larger and snow-white all summer long. Now there is a tan bathtub ring around what used to be a glacier. This change is personal, precise and experiential.

Words matter. Words invoke, connote and direct attention as we move through the world. Discouraging use of the term “climate change” might just turn out to be a good thing. As long as we continue to talk about the subject: Let’s stick with global warming.

Alex Lee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is an assistant professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

Published in Community Voices

On this week's explosive-testimony-laden weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips listens in as Trumpy makes movie plans; Red Meat installs a new toilet; This Modern World visits the clandestine headquarters of the Fake News Media; Jen Sorenson calls on environmentalists to get butch; and The K Chronicles baby-sits a deer.

Published in Comics

Gov. Jerry Brown made international news when he vowed to fight President Donald Trump’s attempts to cut America’s climate-change research and rescind the nation’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Brown’s commitment to fighting climate change seems real, and under his leadership, his state has engaged in numerous greenhouse-gas-reduction plans. But there are caveats to his commitment, including the continued growth in fossil fuel extraction in California, and the state’s near-explosive population growth—both of which drive emissions up, not down.

There’s another issue that California needs to address: methane emissions from hydropower, particularly at Hoover Dam, the source of a significant portion of Los Angeles’ electricity.

About 25 years ago, a small team of scientists in Brazil started measuring the methane produced at hydropower dams and reservoirs. Led by Philip Fearnside, the scientists found surprising results, indicating that hydropower dams and reservoirs in tropical countries like Brazil emit high levels of methane—sometimes as much as a coal-fired power plant. Fearnside referred to these hydropower producers as “methane factories.”

The studies have multiplied over the last two decades, and in 2006, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included calculations for measuring “Methane Emissions From Flooded Land” in making national greenhouse-gas inventories. Since 2006, study after study has confirmed high levels of methane emissions from dams and reservoirs, and when the Environmental Protection Agency measured methane emissions from a reservoir in the Midwestern United States in 2016, the emissions detected were as high as those measured in the Brazilian hydropower plants.

In September of last year, an international team of scientists synthesized dozens of studies around the globe and found that hydropower’s methane emissions have been dramatically under-measured. This analysis, published in Bioscience and funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and U.S. National Science Foundation, made international news with its conclusion that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change needed to revise its calculations and include hydropower’s significant emissions in its climate change scenarios.

Another study, published in September 2016 by a team of Swiss scientists, used previous measurements at dams and reservoirs around the world to create a model that estimated methane emissions from nearly 1,500 hydropower plants and other dams and reservoirs across the planet. The study’s conclusions further rocked the climate-change world: Climate-change emissions from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on the Colorado River near Las Vegas were found to be about equal to those of coal-fired power plants that produced the same amount of electricity.

Why do dams and reservoirs produce emissions like methane? The answer is that when organic material such as vegetation, sediment, algae and other runoff decomposes underwater at a reservoir, methane is released. This is a natural process called “anaerobic decomposition,” but it is dramatically intensified in dam and reservoir systems that are not natural lakes. Take Hoover Dam and Lake Mead as an example. Lake Mead is enormous—about one-quarter the size of Rhode Island. The reservoir level fluctuates over the year, causing many square miles of its banks to periodically dry up, grow vegetation and then get flooded again each year.

Large amounts of sediment are also washed down the Colorado River every year. This sediment coats the bottom of the lake and also dries up along the miles of caked mud on the lake’s hot banks. Thus, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead work together to create a high-methane-producing hydropower system. Even though measurements and estimates of methane are very recent, as far back as 1948, the U.S. Geological Survey was examining what it was then called “gas pits" in the mud flats of Lake Mead.

About 50 percent of Hoover Dam’s electricity is wired to the Los Angeles area. Yet no greenhouse gas emissions calculations—in Los Angeles or statewide in California—include Hoover Dam’s contribution. That’s like having a large coal-fired power plant burning in downtown Los Angeles whose climate change impact is completely ignored.

California has 1,400 dams and reservoirs. Most of them produce far less methane than Hoover Dam, but many of those dams’ emissions are neither estimated nor measured. It’s time for California to acknowledge its methane emissions from hydropower, measure them—and, finally, offset or stop them.

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is the director of the Save the Colorado River Campaign and the author of River Warrior: Fighting to Protect the World’s Rivers.

Published in Community Voices

A young lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency had a heavy feeling as he headed to work one recent morning.

Like many EPA staffers, he’s been distraught over the steady stream of negative news about the Trump administration’s plans for his agency, and what it all means for his future. That morning the White House had released its budget proposal, calling on Congress to cut 31 percent of the EPA’s budget, more than 50 programs and 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 employees.

The lawyer’s subway stop, the Federal Triangle Metro Station, dumps people out under a grand archway between two entrances to the EPA’s ornate limestone DC headquarters. As he went up the escalator, he encountered a small group of people standing in the cold wind, passing out fliers and holding signs that read: “Fight climate change; work for California.”

A man with a bushy gray mustache exclaimed: “I’m recruiting for California jobs!” and introduced himself to the EPA lawyer as Michael Picker, the president of California’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities.

Picker explained that he has 250 job openings—and more on the way. California’s Air Resources Board and Energy Commission also have opportunities for federal employees frustrated with the direction in which the Trump administration is headed.

“All the jobs will have impacts on climate change in some ways,” he said.

Picker’s recruitment drive is more than a publicity stunt: His agency is short-staffed already, and he’s steadily losing employees to retirement. He needs reinforcements to meet an enormous challenge in front of him. He needs to ensure that electric utilities make the investments necessary to generate enough clean energy to meet California’s ambitious climate change goals. (California is committed to getting 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030.)

The EPA lawyer said his encounter with Picker last week lifted his spirits giving him a sense of “relief” and “hope.” He’d already considered seeking a job in California, where the state government has a strong commitment to environmental protection.

“There’s a pull and a push, especially with the budget coming out,” added the lawyer, who like other EPA staffers, didn’t want his name used for fear it would put his job in jeopardy.

This was just the kind of encounter that Picker hoped for when he decided to turn an already-planned trip to Washington, D.C., into a mini recruiting mission. His goal was to try to lure talented federal employees to California state government by promising them a chance to work someplace still committed to fighting climate change. He also spent a morning passing out fliers at the Energy Department. But he was especially happy with how things went outside EPA’s headquarters.

One EPA staffer ran inside and returned with a resume. An EPA engineer asked for extra fliers for his colleagues. Picker passed out business cards, offering to help the D.C. refugees navigate the cumbersome hiring process at California state agencies. “Thank you for offering to rescue us!” one EPA staffer bellowed as he walked past.

Picker’s challenge is bigger than getting companies to generate cleaner electricity. He also has to ensure they make investments to transform the electric grid to meet the challenges of all the additional renewable power that’s coming online.

The grid was designed as a centralized system where electricity was generated by relatively few large power plants. The grid now needs to get a lot smarter to manage many thousands of new sources of power, from large-scale solar and wind farms to solar panels on top of people’s homes. Cleaner electricity isn’t enough: California also wants to shift its vehicles to clean electricity: “That’s why we need people—to help build the infrastructure California needs to get greenhouse gases out of our economy. These tasks aren’t going to solve themselves.”

Despite all the rhetoric from the White House and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about major plans to transform the agency and downplay climate change, there hasn’t yet been a big exodus. EPA employees are passionate about the mission of the agency, and so far, many staffers say they’re still doing their usual work.

“Because nothing drastic has changed yet at EPA, people don’t have immediate pressure to leave,” said another EPA staffer who spoke with Picker. “You saw people taking those fliers. So it’s not that people aren’t thinking about it.”

She said she thinks California is smart to try to lure away the EPA’s talented employees at a time when their current employer is making it clear their work isn’t valued. She will definitely consider moving to California for a job, she said.

Fundamental changes are on the way, given that Pruitt and President Donald Trump have vowed to undo the biggest efforts undertaken by the EPA during the Obama administration—regulations to slash greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants and protect wetlands and waterways. Trump took a big step today with an executive order undoing many Obama-era regulations. EPA staffers will now be charged with justifying the elimination of regulations that they or their colleagues spent years crafting.

None of the EPA staffers I spoke with were willing to have their names published.

“We’re all afraid now of retribution if we talk. It’s already started to happen,” said one staffer.

John O’Grady, president of a national council of EPA employee unions, said EPA employees are right to be cautious. “We all pretty much are aware we cannot speak out in the press; that would not be a very smart move on the part of an employee.”

As Picker was wrapping up for the morning, a bundled-up bike commuter rode up to ask about an application he’d already sent in. Picker promised to help and then took a photo with some volunteers who had showed up to help him pass out fliers. One was a corporate lawyer, another a former Energy Department official, and third a solar executive from Oregon who was in town for business.

“I’m disillusioned by Trump’s budget proposal,” said Tom Starrs, a vice president of SunPower Corporation. ”On the other hand, I’m inspired by California continuing to address climate change and by the support at every level of government in California. It’s a unified front on climate change. It’s wonderful to see.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

It is snowing in Washington, D.C.—strange in early March after an insanely warm winter, but nothing compared to the cold many of the activists and tribal members gathered here endured in North Dakota while fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Kristen Tuske, a 39-year-old woman from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, stands with several other women in front of the White House, her back to it, fist raised in the air. She has pink hair, sculpted arches for eyebrows and tattoos on the side of her face. She lived at the camp where thousands of “water protectors” gathered to fight the pipeline for seven months.

“The last couple weeks at the camp were sad, and everyone was a little angry,” she said. “A lot of feelings are hurt. ... That was our home, and we got kicked out.”

The last protesters left the camp on Feb. 23.

The struggle started last summer when the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the construction of the oil pipeline, claiming it could contaminate their water supply and destroy significant archeological sites. That kicked off months of protests, often pitting camps of indigenous people—and the environmentalists and veterans that had come to fight with them—against an increasingly militarized police presence. President Obama twice ordered construction stopped, but, after taking office, Trump gave the go-ahead to the pipeline, insisting publicly that it must be constructed of American steel (a stance he quietly reversed this month).

The evacuation of the camp may be a defeat for Standing Rock, but, in the eyes of those gathered in front of the White House, it may also signal the beginning of something greater—the possibility of a real environmental movement in America.

“The reason I am here is to represent our future generations and be their voice, part of the resistance in decolonizing our minds,” said JoRee LaFrance, a member of the Crow tribe from Montana. “Protecting our waters should be our No. 1 priority, and that’s why we’re all here is to unite and protect tribal sovereignty and to protect indigenous people and their waters. People need to realize indigenous people are doing this for all people, not just indigenous people. We’re here to protect the water for all people.”

As I talk to people at the rally, I hear that sentiment again and again. It is not just about the water at Standing Rock. It is a symbolic battle, a turning point. Indigenous people are stepping forward to save the planet—and to save us from ourselves.

Little Thunder, an elder from South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, is standing apart from the crowd in full ceremonial regalia: a feathered headdress, a circular feather shield, and some mirrored sunglasses. He came all the way to Washington to “let people know and let Trump know that this is not just a Standing Rock or a Washington, D.C., or a politics issue. This is for the whole Earth. We’re trying to save the water, because water is life.”

Little Thunder says he is a single father of six children, four of them living at Standing Rock. His voice is high and pinched; he’s almost singing as he speaks.

“Once he let (Standing Rock) go through, they think they can destroy the water, which is life every place else on this Earth, not just Standing Rock,” he says.

David Kenny, a member of the Seneca Nation, is standing with a sign that reads “Water Is Life.”

“It’s not just about Native Americans anymore. It’s about everyone,” he says. “Because if you keep poisoning the water, you’re going to start paying for it, and they’re going to shoot that price up. You’re going to be paying $20 for a bottle of it. It’s not just about the tribes anymore.”

He turns his attention toward the White House and the white man inside it. “Can you stop this pipeline, please?” he asks, his voice soft. “It’s not about business anymore. It’s not just us that’s going to fall—it’s you, too. Everybody is going to die if this continues. The Earth is dying.”

There is no indication that Trump or anyone else in the White House hears this, despite the fact that native nations have spent the last four days with teepees set up on the mall, raising awareness of indigenous and environmental issues. On March 9, the day before the gathering across from the White House, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would not agree that climate change caused by human activity is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

But as the Native Nations Rise rally went down, thousands more people were calling the EPA to complain about Pruitt’s disavowal of accepted science.

On the very same day as the rally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study reporting that carbon dioxide levels rose at a “record pace for second straight year.”

“The two-year, 6-ppm surge in the greenhouse gas between 2015 and 2017 is unprecedented in the observatory’s 59-year record,” the report read.

Trump’s budget proposal, released a week after the rally, slashed the EPA by more than 30 percent. NOAA is not included in the final proposal, but a leaked draft showed a 17 percent decrease in funding.

Back at the rally, the snow falls on the demonstrators, as well as the dancers and the speakers on the stage. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas takes the stage. He is part Shoshone and organized the release of a song recorded by a collection of mostly native artists to bring attention to Native American issues.

It is a strange moment, watching the snow fall as this pop star in a floppy hat sings over a recording of his band’s song “I Gotta Feeling,” and people sway and dance and sing along, making it feel, for a moment, more like spring break than a deadly serious fight for the fate of the world.

Looking over at the White House, I have a feeling that tonight’s probably not gonna be a good night. But if we listen to the water protectors, we may still have some good nights left.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in Environment

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