EarthTalk® | May 2017


Activist Winona LaDuke recently set up her tipi at one of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps and has been outspoken about the need to reject such projects and the fossil fuels slated to run through them.

Dear EarthTalk: The environmental movement was built on the philosophies of people like Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. But who are the great environmental visionaries of our own day and age? — Betsy Englund, Boston, MA

Thoreau, best known for his book Walden, taught us how to live a simple life and take pleasure in nature’s splendor all around us. Leopold’s 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, encouraged us to respect the land and its inhabitants and manage it with future generations in mind. And Carson, whose book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the global environmental movement, taught us that the world would be sick, let alone way too quiet, without the soundtrack of wildlife. While these voices from the past still guide our conservation ethic, a new generation of visionaries is reimagining what it means to be an environmentalist in response to the new existential challenges facing our species and our planet.

One of them is Winona LaDuke, who cut her activist teeth in the 1980s when she helped launch the Indigenous Women’s Network and campaigned for tribal land claims in Minnesota. In 1993 she partnered with the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls to launch Honor the Earth, which raises awareness and support for Native environmental issues and develops resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor the Earth uses music, the arts and the media to spread awareness about our dependency on a clean, healthy planet. Most recently, LaDuke set up her tipi at one of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps; she has been outspoken about the need to reject such projects and the oil slated to run through them.

Many Americans first learned about the potential perils of climate change from Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature. McKibben has subsequently penned more than a dozen books on related topics, and in 2006 crossed over into activism, helping lead a five-day walk across Vermont calling for action on global warming. He went on to launch, a global climate organizing effort named after climate scientist James Hansen’s contention that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million would be unsafe for humanity and the planet. Pioneering the use of social media to grow its ranks, the group coordinated 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries as part of its “International Day of Climate Action” in October 2009 and rallied hundreds of thousands more people at subsequent events. recently geared up for the People’s Climate Mobilization, hoping for a record turnout in Washington,D.C., and at other simultaneous rallies around the world. McKibben remains an outspoken critic of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects.

While McKibben worked his way into our hearts through his writing, Josh Fox did it with video. The filmmaker’s 2010 documentary Gasland focused on the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations to recover natural gas deposits. The Oscar-nominated film became a key lever in the anti-fracking movement and Fox went on to become a vocal opponent of fracking. In 2016, Fox traveled the country on behalf of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president and helped pen a historic climate amendment to the Democratic Platform, calling for the institution of a national carbon pricing system, the phase out of gas-fired power plants and higher efficiency standards for federal energy projects. Fox currently works as creative director for Our Revolution, a non-profit Sanders launched following the 2016 Democratic primaries to get more Americans involved in the political process and organize and elect progressive candidates.

Contacts: Honor the Earth,;,; Our Revolution,

Environmental Justice
Some consider the lead contamination of the water supply of predominantly African-American Flint, Michigan to be an environmental justice issue. Credit: Victoria Pickering, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What is meant by “environmental justice” and how is it under assault in the new Trump administration? — Mike Garner, New Orleans, LA

Environmental justice is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” In layperson’s terms, it means making sure specific groups of people don’t bear a disproportionate burden from potential and existing environmental threats.

Traditionally, we think of situations like the siting and construction of a pollution-spewing factory in or near a low-income minority community as an example of an environmental injustice. Some recent examples ripped from the headlines include the lead contamination of the water supply of predominantly African-American Flint, Mich., and the siting of the potentially hazardous Dakota Access Pipeline adjacent to sacred and ecologically sensitive Standing Rock Sioux tribal land.

“The federal government has recognized for decades that air and water quality are especially poor in low-income areas and communities of color, and some of that imbalance stems directly from government permitting decisions, such as where to allow the dumping of toxic materials,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental advocacy non-profit.

Environmental justice has been a hot topic lately as it relates to who bears the brunt of climate change impacts. According to EPA research, city dwellers and the poor are among the Americans most likely to suffer from climate change. NRDC points out that 24 to 27 percent of urban African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous people in the U.S. are now living below the poverty line, compared with only 13 percent of urban whites — meaning that minority groups are at the greatest risk from the heat waves, bad air, stronger storms and other negative consequences of a warming climate.

The federal government has been working on environmental justice issues since at least 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush created a White House office dedicated to “environmental equity.” Bill Clinton took up the mantle when he assumed the presidency in 1994 and issued Executive Order No. 12898, calling for the federal government to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” Clinton’s order created the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to coordinate and oversee implementation of the rule across different federal agencies, and spawned the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, which has awarded upwards of $24 million since then in funding to more than 1,400 community-based and tribal organizations working in communities facing environmental justice problems.

But that all is likely to change now that Donald Trump has proposed slashing the EPA’s overall budget by $2 billion and cutting funding for environmental justice programs specifically by 78 percent, from $6.7 million to just $1.5 million. “These cuts are a direct attack on low-income communities and communities of color everywhere who are on the front lines of toxic pollution,” says NRDC’s environmental justice head Al Huang.

Contacts: EPA Environmental Justice,; NRDC,

Global Warming
The melting of the ice sheets around Illulissat, Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic is accelerating thanks to global warming. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the Paris climate accord as it stands won’t be enough to stave off cataclysmic global warming anyway, even if the U.S. and the other participating countries honor their commitments? — Astrid Taylor, Williams, MA

To date, 197 countries have signed onto 2015’s landmark Paris climate accord (“The Paris Agreement”), which aims to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 through voluntary emissions reduction plans. But skeptics argue that even if all participating countries follow through with their promised cuts, we may still come up short in leveling off global warming, as needed.

Researchers working on the Climate Action Tracker, a tool used to monitor climate action and global efforts to meet Paris Agreement goals, found that with current and planned emissions reduction policies, we are on track to hold the global mean temperature down to approximately 2.8°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 — not the 2°C environmental leaders are hoping we can achieve. For some context, the current global average mean temperature hovers around 1°C above pre-industrial levels, but climatologists expect the warming to accelerate as a result of a century’s worth of carbon dioxide (CO2) built up in the atmosphere. If we keep up our current pace of emissions without any checks, climate models suggest the global average mean temperature will rise about 3.6°C by 2100.

Meanwhile, others think we are even further from achieving our goals. Blogger and Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg calculates that, even if each of the Paris signatories keeps its emissions reduction promises, we can only expect a negligible reduction in global mean temperature, that is, only 0.17°C lower by 2100, but still well above what climatologists consider safe and sustainable. “Paris is being sold as the summit where we can help ‘heal the planet’ and ‘save the world’,” says Lomborg. “It is no such thing.”

What such negative extrapolations don’t factor in is that the Paris Agreement leaves room for participating nations to adjust their emissions reduction goals moving forward. Indeed, setting more ambitious targets mid-stream is baked into the agreement. Negotiators figure that improving technologies and the reduced cost of renewables in the coming years will help drive down emissions more than we can count on at this point, and getting more nations on-board now is the top priority. To wit, the U.S. has promised “deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050” while the European Union has likewise pledged to slash its own emissions by 80 to 95 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

But are such lofty goals achievable? Stockholm University’s Johan Rockström thinks so, but only if we’re careful how we get there. Lead author on a recent paper on the topic in Science Magazine, Rockström argues that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and industry around the world in half every decade until 2050 while also cutting out net greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and deforestation altogether. Meanwhile, we’ll have to significantly scale up efforts to sequester CO2. According to Rockström, if we can remove five gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year until 2050 — almost double what the world’s trees and soils already do naturally — we might be able to get in striking distance of the 2°C goal.

Contacts: Bjorn Lomborg’s “Impact of Current Climate Proposals,”; Climate Action Tracker,; “A Roadmap for Rapid Decarbonisation,”

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