The 120-year-old U.S. environmental movement has undergone a tectonic shift and resurgence over the last several years, spearheaded by the failed legislative effort to cap carbon emissions in 2010. In the aftermath of that debacle, some the biggest environmental groups reshaped their missions—supplementing inside-the-Beltway campaigning with grassroots organizing and civil disobedience action not seen in this country since the 1970s. New groups from the hyperlocal to the national and global were born.
Today the 10 organizations driving the modern green wave—profiled in the infographic below—collectively have 15 million members, 2,000-plus staffers and annual budgets of more than $525 million to advance environmental agendas at the local, national and international levels.
A State Department contractor for the Keystone XL that has been under attack for alleged conflicts of interest has withdrawn from contract negotiations to review a lesser-known but still controversial tar sands pipeline: Enbridge's Alberta Clipper.
The unusual move has led some legal and industry experts to question whether public and political pressure against the company might have played a role in the decision. "There's no doubt it is in the back of our minds," said David McColl, an energy analyst for Morningstar, an investment research company, who focuses on Enbridge. Federal contracts for major projects can be lucrative—potentially worth into the millions, depending on the scope and scale of the work and the agency involved—and are often the bread-and-butter of consulting firms' business.
On March 15, 2013, the State Department announced it had chosen ICF International, a technology and policy consulting group based in Fairfax, Va., to carry out the environmental review of Enbridge's proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper oil pipeline to transport 880,000 barrels a day from Canada to Wisconsin.
Florida, the most vulnerable state in the country to climate change, faces a key election this November that could have significant ramifications for its ability to cope with the challenge of rising seas and intensifying coastal storms.
If incumbent Tea Party-aligned Rick Scott is reelected governor, it is expected to mean four more years of inaction on global warming. His likely opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, a former governor of Florida, is committed to aggressive climate action. Environmental groups, scientists and policy experts say that if Crist or another climate hawk wins, it would give the state at least a shot at staving off the worst effects of global warming.
"It is critically important that the governor of Florida take action on climate change," said Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club. "Even if the [average] forecasts for sea level rise come true, much of the state will be in trouble, areas will be wiped out and communities evacuated."
Florida is widely seen as America's ground zero for global warming because the majority of its population and economy is concentrated along low-elevation oceanfront.
Story updated on Feb. 14 at 2:00 p.m. EDT to include comment from the Canada Revenue Agency.
In both the United States and Canada, activism against tar sands, pipelines and climate change has soared in recent years.
But while President Obama has encouraged citizens to "stand up and speak up" to demand change on energy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's administration has tried to silence critics of pro-tar sands policies.
In the most recent evidence, seven influential environmental organizations have become the subject of rigorous audits by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Activists allege that the scrutiny is an attempt by the Harper administration to subdue tar sands opponents as decision time looms for pipelines needed to bring Alberta's landlocked oil to market—the Texas-bound Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.
With the Obama administration heading into the endgame on the Keystone XL decision, now comes the final test for a resurgent U.S. environmental movement that has put all its chips on blocking the Canada-to-Texas tar sands pipeline.
"[This] is our last chance to convince the administration and the American people that this pipeline isn't actually beneficial, that it isn't in the national interest," said Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the many green groups fighting the pipeline.
Thanks to climate change, extreme weather disasters have hammered the United States with increasing frequency in recent years—from drought and wildfires to coastal storms and flooding.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the U.S. agency in charge of preparing for and responding to these disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), doesn't account for climate change in most of its budget planning and resource allocation or in the National Flood Insurance Program it administers.
"Climate change is affecting everything the agency does, and yet it isn't given much consideration," said Michael Crimmins, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona who is leading a project to try to improve FEMA's use of climate science data. "FEMA has to be climate literate in a way that many other agencies don't have to be."
A main problem, he and other experts say, is that FEMA doesn't use short- or long-term climate science projections to determine how worsening global warming may affect its current operations and the communities it serves.
Instead, FEMA continues to base its yearly budget and activities almost entirely on historical natural disaster records.
That practice is exacerbated by the fact that the agency is at the mercy of economic and political pressures. In addition to having to deal with years of recession that ate into its budget, FEMA has repeatedly been caught in the crosshairs of partisan politics that forced funding cuts and blocked proposed increases.
Frustrated by years of waiting on politicians to reduce American dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels, an unprecedented number of citizen activists rallied to send a message in 2013: Enough is enough.
Thousands of chanting marchers took to the streets, from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, urging policymakers to take action against global warming. They wanted Congress to end the inertia that has built-up over climate policy. They wanted help protecting themselves from climate threats like Superstorm Sandy. They also wanted President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline—which would funnel as much as 830,000 barrels per day of Canadian tar sands oil across America's midsection. The controversial project has become a symbol of the battle over the nation's energy policy.
Some activists took a more aggressive tack. Dozens chained themselves to construction equipment used to build the southern leg of the Keystone XL—which runs from Oklahoma to Texas and is now complete. Still others stormed government agencies and fossil fuel company headquarters, getting themselves arrested in the process.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of aggressive rebuilding initiatives to protect New Yorkers from future climate-related threats.
But less than a mile away in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River, political leaders reacted in a much different way.
To them, the October 2012 superstorm was just a rare event, not a preview of what scientists expect global warming to bring to the East Coast in the coming decades.
When asked in May about Sandy's connection with climate change, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said the question was "a distraction" and that global warming was an "esoteric" theory.
That philosophy has permeated New Jersey's post-Sandy recovery effort.
As environmentalists began ratcheting up pressure against Canada's tar sands three years ago, one of the world's biggest strategic consulting firms was tapped to help the North American oil industry figure out how to handle the mounting activism. The resulting document, published online by WikiLeaks, offers another window into how oil and gas companies have been scrambling to deal with unrelenting opposition to their growth plans.
The document identifies nearly two-dozen environmental organizations leading the anti-oil sands movement and puts them into four categories: radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists—with how-to's for managing each. It also reveals that the worst-case scenario presented to industry about the movement's growing influence seems to have come to life.
The December 2010 presentation by Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Texas, mostly advised oil sands companies to ignore or limit reaction to the then-burgeoning tar sands opposition movement because "activists lack influence in politics." But there was a buried warning for industry under one scenario: Letting the movement grow unopposed may bring about "the most significant environmental campaign of the decade."
Three years ago, Franke James was a little-known artist who found herself blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that lambasted the rapidly expanding tar sands. Infuriated and emboldened by the censure, James churned out a slew of pieces criticizing the government, published a book and in the process became one of Canada's most outspoken environmental activists.
Now, the Toronto resident is embarking on a new mission. She wants to raise awareness in the United States about what she believes are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continuing undemocratic tactics to squash opposition to his oil agenda.
In doing so, she hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The contentious project would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas and open a gateway for the flow of the dirtier grade of oil to export markets abroad. A decision is expected next year.