The ideological divide over climate change widened this week in the Senate committee charged with shaping America's energy policy, setting the stage for a partisan showdown over the new Republican majority's plans to attack the Environmental Protection Agency, build the Keystone XL pipeline and drive fossil fuel expansion.
Democrats' replacement of three pro-fossil-fuel lawmakers with more pro-climate-action senators means that any across-the-aisle cooperation on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is probably dead, according to political strategists. While Republicans will control the panel 12-10 in 2015, Democrats could delay—or even potentially derail—the GOP's pro-fossil-fuels agenda by nitpicking bills during committee mark-up or by threatening a presidential veto.
"The GOP's appointments are evidence of the increasing desire within the party to roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign. "The Democrats' decisions were definitely calculated, defensive choices. They chose three of their strongest environmentalists...There will be some serious battles in the next two years."
For most of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's first year in office, global warming didn't seem to be a top priority—leaving green groups who endorsed him as an environmental champion during his campaign reeling. But 11 months into his term, there are signs that a shift is under way as the mayor made significant pledges and restructured the city's climate team.
Last week, de Blasio quietly named Nilda Mesa to lead New York's climate agenda as director of a new Office of Sustainability. The agency combines two offices with climate-action responsibility. Mesa, an environmental policy and planning authority, has experience at the federal level working for the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency and in New York as the former head of Columbia University's sustainability efforts.
"She has sterling environmental credentials and the ear of the mayor and his top officials—two extremely valuable assets for success in this position," said Eric Goldstein, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York City Environment program. "There had been a gap in critical personnel. We're glad it has been filled by a quality candidate."
As the first delegates landed in Peru this week for the latest United Nations climate talks, activists were already taking to the streets of Lima to demand that world leaders take aggressive action against global warming.
Hundreds of climate activists and faith leaders gathered in Lima Sunday night for a candlelight vigil. Joining them were Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Manuel Pulgar Vidal, Peru's environment minister and president of the Lima negotiations. That same day, Greenpeace activists projected a pro-solar energy message on Machu Picchu, Peru's ancient, iconic cultural site. On Monday, dozens of others massed for a demonstration of the Fast for the Climate movement, in which people refuse to eat as a show of solidarity for people feeling the effects of climate change.
Those events were just the beginning of what promised to be a busy two weeks for climate activists. Representatives of 190 countries are in Peru to draft the basics of a global climate accord to be finalized in Paris next December. This week delegates are discussing how much nations should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how much developed nations should pay to help developing countries—most of which did little to contribute to the problem—adapt to climate change. For climate activists, the talks this month are an important opportunity to show world leaders the size, strength and diversity of their movement, as well as to bolster its Latin American base.
For the past decade, Walmart has touted itself as a leader in sustainability, boasting about its efforts to increase renewable energy and reduce energy waste throughout its supply chain.
The global megacorporation's efforts have been applauded by President Obama and sustainability experts, and reported by news outlets. They have also prompted dozens of other corporations to follow suit.
But a new report released Thursday finds that Walmart relies as heavily on fossil fuels now as it did when it launched its sustainability initiative nearly 10 years ago.
Walmart gets 40 percent of the electricity for its U.S. retail and distribution locations from coal—higher than the nation's percentage, says the report, "Walmart's Dirty Energy Secret," by the 40-year-old think tank the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. That doesn't include the coal-powered factories in China and other rising economies that produce most of Walmart's goods.
The amount of energy Walmart gets from renewable sources decreased from 4 percent to 3 percent between 2011 and 2013, the study said. This is despite pledges in 2005 that the company would be powered 100 percent from wind, fuel cells and solar in the near future. Its greenhouse gas emissions haven't declined at all.
Walmart, one of the largest political donors in the country, also directs most of its campaign contributions to pro-fossil fuel industry candidates, the study found.
Update at 6:10 PM on Nov. 21, 2014: The Texas State Board of Education approved nearly 100 new social studies textbooks on Friday, none of which include climate denial.
A five-year battle over the teaching of climate change in Texas classrooms may come to an end Friday when the state Board of Education votes on which social studies textbooks to approve for its more than 1,200 school districts.
Until this week, many of the textbooks under consideration included inaccuracies on climate change—the science behind it and the policies needed to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the main culprit of global warming. Some of them question the scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening. Publishers agreed to fix most of the inaccuracies under pressure from education groups including the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network. But there are still some that distort the issue and many that don't address it at all, experts said.
The 15-member Board of Education refused at a Tuesday hearing to give preliminary approval for the new textbooks until members thoroughly examined all the changes publishers made in recent weeks. The board's 10 conservative Republican members could still force publishers to revert to inaccurate language when the board makes its decision Friday.
"The central problem in the textbook wars in Texas," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, "is that decisions about what students learn in their public schools often come down to a vote by politicians who are more interested in promoting their personal and political beliefs than in listening to teachers, scholars and other experts."
The fight against hydraulic fracturing in Illinois will go on even after a panel of lawmakers approved regulations last week that could jumpstart the controversial drilling practice in the state, environmental activists said.
The state's action is expected to accelerate development of one of the last major, largely untapped American fossil fuel reserves, the New Albany Shale. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the underground formation may hold as much as 3.79 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and 142 million barrels of oil. Until this point, fracking in the state has been allowed, but slow to develop. The industry has reportedly been hesitant to commit to drilling without knowing the regulations they face. Meanwhile, the state Department of Natural Resources has held off approving permits until the final draft of its regulations were accepted.
Environmentalists spent nearly two years trying to shape the rules, advocating the inclusion of strict environmental and health-safety measures. But the groups—both mainstream organizations that helped developed earlier versions of the regulations and grassroots ones that fought to strengthen them—were left out of final, closed-door negotiations between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the oil and gas industry.
Now the fracking opponents vow to carry on the fight at the local level, attack mistakes in rulemaking and watch the department's implementation of the rules closely.
Environmental groups watched in shock last night as many of the seats they considered shoo-ins fell to GOP control—leaving the movement examining its big-money midterm strategy and how to push climate action forward with a Republican Congress.
The nation's major green groups spent about $85 million trying to make climate change a central focus of the election and elect pro-action candidates. They knew going in they faced an uphill battle. The sixth year of an administration is historically difficult for the ruling party to win, and many of the races were being contested in red, energy-producing states.
But in the final weeks and days leading to Election Day, political forecasters projected positive outcomes for many of the races in which environmentalists spent time and money.
"I felt disappointment, straight up," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told InsideClimate News about watching the results come in. "It was hard to swallow seeing a lot of our friends and strong climate champions lose their races. And there were results that took us by surprise."
The race in Michigan's 6th congressional district between incumbent Republican Congressman Fred Upton and Democrat Paul Clements has become surprisingly close—with Clements trailing the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce by just a few points.
But until a few days ago, almost no one outside of the district was watching or involved in the race.
"It is now possible, if not likely, that this could be one of the biggest surprises coming out of the Midwestern congressional races," said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan.
Upton was largely considered unbeatable thanks to his fourteen-term incumbency and ties to the fossil fuel industry, which has kept his campaign coffers full year after year. National environmental and political organizations like the League of Conservation Voters, the NRDC Action Fund and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee focused their efforts elsewhere. Even pollsters weren't tracking the race, at least not publicly.
NPR has cut back on the number of staffers focused solely on the environment and climate change.
Earlier this year, the news outlet had three full-time reporters and one editor dedicated to covering the issue within NPR's science desk. One remains—and he is covering it only part-time. A few reporters on other desks occasionally cover the topic as well.
The move to shift reporters off the environment beat was driven by an interest to cover other fields more in depth, said Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor of NPR's science desk.
Democrats are justifiably worried about holding onto control of the United States Senate in the midterm elections Nov. 4. Most forecasts have Republicans winning seven seats for a 52-48 advantage, which would almost certainly spell doom for any action on climate change.
But here's the real catch: Even if Democrats win the Senate by a slim margin, climate action could still be foiled for the next few years by members of their own party.
In several critical races, particularly in energy-producing states, Democratic candidates' stated climate change beliefs somewhat echo their Republican opponents'. Most toe the party line and accept the idea that the world is warming, but resist action that could theoretically harm their home-state economies, such as cutting fossil fuels.
"In races like these, climate advocates don't have a candidate to root for," said RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic party's environment caucus and founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a superPAC helping to elect climate-conscious candidates. "They are lose-lose scenarios for us. Sadly, there are more of these races than there should be at this point in the climate fight."