Open Letter to Grassroots Sierra Activists Urges Resistance to Fatal Compromise on Senate Bill

Open Letter to Grassroots Sierra Activists Urges Resistance to
Fatal Compromise on Senate Bill

May 12, 2010

To Sierra Club grassroots member,

The Sierra Club has experienced many victories in its long history. These real achievements in environmental protection are rightfully a source of pride. In recent years, the Club has provided inspiring leadership in halting the expansion of the coal industry. But the threat of runaway climate catastrophe is an issue that transcends all the rest. If this disaster is not prevented, all the other victories of the Club will ring hollow.

Having visited the website of each Sierra Club Chapter and Group, we appreciate that the national Club owes its existence as a powerful grassroots organization to your leadership and commitment. Thus, we respectfully urge you to take the action we outline below to encourage the national Sierra Club officially to adopt a strong, principled and environmentally sound position in the national debate on climate change policy, a position it has so far failed to adopt.

In 2008, the Sierra Club bestowed its highest honor – the John Muir Award – to climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. In presenting the award, Club President Allison Chin said: "He is truly a hero for preserving the environment". But now this same "hero" is expressing grave concern about climate legislation that has become so riddled with giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that – in the name of the planet – it must be opposed. Though it is being presented as a "first step", the reality is that a far-reaching financial structure would be put into place. This system would delay effective mechanisms to price carbon by entrenching powerful interests and thereby resist change for at least a decade.

It has been said that "politics is the art of compromise" and the Club is being urged to adopt a "flexible" stance on climate legislation. Such a perspective in the present situation, however, runs into two serious problems. One is that tremendous natural forces have already been triggered which are quite impervious to any process of political horsetrading. It is not possible to "negotiate" with the methane now dangerously thawing and venting from the Siberian seabed. Second, currently proposed climate legislation is not a "compromise". It is nothing less than a complete capitulation to polluting industries and Wall St.

The tragic truth we face in this proposed legislation is that through the removal of EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide and the establishment of a system of offsets and carbon trading which can be cynically manipulated, polluting industries would be able to circumvent the imperative need to physically reduce their carbon emissions and postpone such requirements for as much as 15 to 20 years. This lag in actual reductions could become monstrously destructive for the planet if it leads to the crossing of the tipping points leading to runaway de-stabilization, which could well occur within this span of time. 450 to 550 ppm was considered an "optimistic" target for Waxman-Markey, when science is saying that 350 ppm (or more likely 300 ppm) will be necessary to avoid catastrophe.

What Would John Muir Do?

In Ken Burns’ acclaimed PBS series "The National Parks", Sierra Club founder John Muir is portrayed as a valiant hero for tirelessly resisting the corporate interests attempting to encroach upon the spectacular Yosemite valley. Nowhere in the long history of the organization he started has there been a moment that calls out more loudly for that original spirit to be maintained than right now when we are facing the greatest environmental threat in human history.

In Muir’s time, it would have been difficult to imagine a threat on the scale of a global climate catastrophe. Though the stakes are now incomparably higher, the battle is still basically the same. Those in the grassroots climate movement fighting to prevent the takeover of climate legislation by corporate interests are very much acting in the same spirit as Muir. The Club must become willing to recognize this parallel, acknowledge the tremendous degree to which this legislation has been manipulated, and find its voice to speak out before it is too late.

New executive director Michael Brune is to be complimented for strong statements to the L.A. Times on the need to end fossil fuel dependency in the wake of the terrible spill and also that Sierra may seriously consider opposing KGL if it strips EPA authority. But now is crunch time on the climate issue. Will Sierra continue to promote a KGL bill – where all the critical parameters have been defined by the fossil fuel industry – as a "solid foundation"? Or will it recognize that this foundation is completely inadequate to the task at hand and undermines effective climate policy. Will it choose the principled position of a John Muir or will it turn its back on that legacy at this most critical moment of all ?

How KGL is Not a Bill to Protect the Planet, But Folds to Corporate Interests Instead
The Sierra Club must recognize who has shaped this climate bill. In 2007, a coalition was formed between corporations and environmental organizations called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP – whose purpose was to influence U.S. climate legislation. Two of the founding organizations were Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Other large groups that joined included the Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Foundation. In January 2009, USCAP presented its proposals and these became the framework of the Waxman-Markey bill.

This legislation was built around two concepts that were immediate giveaways to corporate interests. The first was a claimed right to privatize the commons (our atmosphere) through the establishment of a "pollution rights" trading system. The second was to allow the industry to "buy" its way out of actual emission reductions through a vast system of shadowy, so-called "offsets" which have been exposed world-wide as riddled with scams and outright fraud. An already weak bill was made even weaker by giving away "pollution permits" that were supposed to be auctioned. And then in an act of complete capitulation, even the fallback of EPA regulation of carbon dioxide was stripped out.

The result was not a bill to protect the planet, but one to protect polluter profits. The policy of "corporate engagement" which groups like EDF and NRDC have participated in since the early 1990s has backfired and the environmental missions of these organizations have become seriously compromised. In forming USCAP, they essentially "invited the fox to guard the chicken coop" on the most important issue of our time and the fox simply took over.

The normally cautious National Science Foundation is saying that "methane is leaking from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf into the atmosphere at an alarming rate……Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming." The point of no return may be much closer than many think. The role of the Sierra Club is to claim the moral high ground and stand up for what the planet needs. The Club must never allow corporate interests to define what positions are acceptable. In representing the interests of its grassroots members, Sierra national policy must set the standard high and not be drawn into a position that is tragically and fatally compromised. There is nothing "expedient" in a stance which could easily lead to runaway climate disruption, planetary chaos, and wide-spread suffering.

Our Request
We ask that you – Sierra Club grassroots members – take action to demand that the Sierra Club leadership use its power to advocate for the equitable and environmentally sound policies necessary to address climate change. Join other grassroots activists and groups and support the following principles and specific policy points:
Basic Principles:
1) Officially recognize that we are truly in a global emergency and that irreversible tipping points are likely to be crossed if humanity does not act in time;

2) Officially recognize that this emergency is of such a magnitude that a war time level of mobilization is needed in order to effectively deal with it;

3) Stand squarely for the necessity that climate legislation be based on the setting of emission reduction targets and a time frame which are defined by the science;

4) Due to the severe ecosystem damage that will ensue in response to a 2 degree (celsius) rise, an overall goal of no more than one degree (celsius) rise must be sought;

5) Clearly renounce carbon trading and offsets as false solutions that will squander precious time;

6) Stand squarely against any attempt in Congress to strip EPA of its authority to regulate carbon;

7) Since developed nations like the US have contributed the bulk of past and present emissions, support must be provided for the urgent resources/technology transfer to enable ‘developing’ countries to achieve mitigation and a low carbon energy infrastructure;

8) Support the protection of critical carbon sinks by working to forbid industrial logging in old growth forests and provide government funding for the restoration of ecosystems; Oppose biomass burning for the generation of electricity because it is dirtier than burning coal and threatens our forests and the public health.

9) Promote local, organic agriculture, eliminating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs etc.), mandated recycling and composting.

Specific Policy Points:
1) Support a comprehensive approach to the crisis that combines elements of legislation, regulation, and public investment. Specifically, establish a sound financial framework for emission reductions through a combination of rule-based methods, mandated conservation and efficiency standards, and ramp up of investments in low-carbon, non-polluting energy infrastructure;

2) Carbon pricing: Use the model of Dr. Hansen’s "Peoples Climate Stewardship Act" to establish a revenue-neutral, continually rising carbon fee coupled with a 100% distribution of the proceeds to the public, including equal dividend returns to protect low and medium income families. The amount of the fee determined by an emission reduction schedule driven by science.

3) The "Cap and Dividend" or CLEAR Act sponsored by Sen. Cantwell (Democrat of Washington) and Sen. Collins (Republican of Maine) offers a carbon fee similar to #2 above, rules out carbon trading, and leaves EPA authority intact. However, it does contain weaknesses. Its targets and schedule for emission reductions are still insufficient. Though it does not permit offsets (a positive), it still permits some "offset-like" projects. Friends of the Earth, , Center for Biological Diversity, and the regional group Chesapeake Climate Action Network all believe that CLEAR would be a much preferred alternative if these weaknesses can be corrected, and are working on it. If the Sierra Club would throw its considerable weight behind such correction, it might well be achieved.

We hope that dedicated grassroots members who resonate with these concerns will exercise the democratic process of the Club and contact those in leadership positions at both the national and state level. The Sierra Climate Campaign team is headed by Fred Heutte (phred). We have also listed below the links for several important resources which strongly support the points made in this Open Letter.

Gary Houser (Sierra Club and Climate SOS) Email: mountainmist4
and Robert Jereski (Climate SOS member) Email: mutualaid

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