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.
When a United Nations panel of experts released a report last week affirming that man-made climate change is a scientific certainty, skeptics of global warming were noisily trying to discredit the panel. In the process, they drowned out the critiques of a far different group.
A broad array of leading climate scientists and policy specialists were also criticizing the panel for the exact opposite reason: They believe the main conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be too general and too conservative to convey a clear message about the grave threat of warming and to inform policies to address local climate change issues. They say that after 25 years it might be time to overhaul the organization and refocus its research priorities.
"The state of the science and the questions to be answered have changed," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who has worked with the IPCC since the early 1990s.
Conservative groups at the forefront of global warming skepticism are doubling down on trying to discredit the next big report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In recent weeks, they've been cranking out a stream of op-eds, blogs and reports to sow doubt in the public's mind before the report is published, with no end in sight.
"The goal is to inform the public, scientific community and media that the upcoming IPCC report doesn't have all the science to make informed judgments," said Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that has been spearheading the efforts.
Heartland gained notoriety last year after running a billboard campaign comparing climate change believers to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, which caused several corporate donors to withdraw support for the group.
The fifth assessment by the IPCC, the world's leading scientific advisory body on global warming, is expected to conclude with at least 95 percent certainty that human activities have caused most of earth's temperature rise since 1950, and will continue to do so in the future. That's up from a confidence level of 90 percent in 2007, the year the last assessment came out. The IPCC, which consists of thousands of scientists and reviewers from more than 100 countries, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore. Governments often use its periodic reviews of climate risks to set targets for reducing carbon emissions and other policies.
The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has become a top priority for environmental groups and some politicians who oppose the project—and not just in America.
With tensions over the controversial pipeline reaching fever pitch stateside, political activists and leaders abroad are closely watching the developments on the Keystone as a barometer of how willing and able President Obama is to make hard policy choices on global warming, according to an informal InsideClimate News survey.
"Obama's intentions on climate change are under intense international scrutiny," said Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of E3G, a London-based environmental organization. "Any move he makes will be carefully analyzed by the European Union and China to see what it says about his willingness to fight hard on climate change issues."