Of Coal and Compost: 20 Years of Climate Organizing at University of Montana

Above: UM students march for fossil fuel divestment in 2015

Not long ago, returned to the University of Montana campus in Missoula for a visit for the first time in several years. I was a grad student at UM from 2011-2013, during which time I completed my master’s in Environmental Studies with a focus on environmental writing. I spent another two years in the town of Missoula, working on climate activist projects that involved coordinating closely with UM students. It was a bit surreal to be back on campus after several years away.

Many things were as I remembered: the dignified buildings ringing the UM Oval, the bustle of students going to and from class, the gleam of snow on the hills above the school. But there were also differences. Change is constant at universities, and there were new buildings that weren’t there seven years. But of more interest to me were fresh initiatives to increase campus sustainability that I noticed.

The dining area in UM’s University Center now sports signs announcing that most of the food packaging is compostable, as well as loudly labeled receptacles for compostable waste, recycling, and trash. The hope is that trash will bins will fill increasingly slowly as students learn to properly sort their waste and minimize the amount going into the landfill. These upgrades to food waste management are among the most obvious changes I noticed during my time on campus. But they weren’t the only recent changes related to sustainability.

UM’s website boasts of the school’s involvement in the Smart Buildings Initiative, a “collaborative effort that has been developed by students and staff across the Montana University System” to reduce campus energy use. At UM, a revolving loan fund supported by student fees contributed $100,000 to purchase smart energy meters as part of the SBI. And all new buildings at UM are certified Silver or higher on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. All these developments are encouraging. At the same time, they remind us of the limitations of such campus-based sustainability initiatives when viewed through the wider lens of events in Montana over the last couple decades.

The revolving fund that helped purchase UM’s smart meters was founded thanks to the activism of UM Climate Action Now, a club launched in the early 2000s when the nationwide youth climate movement was just beginning to emerge as a force in politics. The newly-formed Energy Action Coalition had recently launched the national Campus Climate Challenge, a campaign designed to enlist students all over the country in pushing their schools to adopt sweeping climate and clean energy policies. UM’s student-initiated fund was exactly the type of project the Campus Climate Challenge sought to support–and such initiatives eventually helped birth countless energy efficiency and clean energy projects at hundreds of colleges and universities. Yet, this was just the start of a flood of student climate activism that swept across campuses over the next decade and a half or so.

By the time I arrived at UM in 2011, the school had a Climate Action Plan that was supposed to chart a path to a low-carbon future. There was growing interest in expanding student climate activism beyond campus. In 2010, UM students and recent graduates–including my friend Zack Porter–played crucial roles in the birth of a regional campaign to oppose shipping “megaload”-sized pieces of equipment through Idaho and Western Montana to the Alberta tar sands. I moved to Missoula as another regional energy fight was heating up, this time over coal.

Mining giant Arch Coal had been granted a lease to Southeast Montana’s state-owned Otter Creek tracts, where the company hoped to extract 20 million tons of coal per year over the course of two decades. Farmers from the affected area and members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe did an inspiring job galvanizing opposition to the Otter Creek Mine. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, communities organized to stop construction of the export terminals it was widely assumed Arch’s mine would supply. Despite this great work, the mine’s eventual completion was treated almost as a foregone conclusion in Montana political circles. After all, it had backing from a multibillion dollar industry and most of the state’s top elected officials. My role in the Otter Creek fight was to help bring Western Montana communities fully into the fray.

In late 2011, I was part of a group of UM students who launched the Blue Skies Campaign, a grassroots effort to oppose coal exports and coal export mining. We organized marches, rallies, and even civil disobedience to protest the Otter Creek Mine. And while people of all ages joined the movement to stop Arch’s mine, students were integral to its success. In 2016, after facing many setbacks in Montana and the collapse of most coal export projects on the West Coast, Arch gave up and withdrew its application to build the Otter Creek Mine. It was a victory for climate activists throughout the region.

Campaigns against the megaloads and the Otter Creek Mine exemplify how students in the 2010s successfully channeled energy from campus-based climate organizing efforts into opposing large fossil fuel infrastructure projects. This work was necessary, because initiatives like the Campus Climate Challenge would never have a big enough impact, on their own, to avoid catastrophic climate change. It’s important to note most architects of the Challenge were well aware of this and intended all along that it serve as a stepping stone to other kinds of student activism.

In 2013, I graduated with my master’s just as an exciting new phase in student climate organizing was taking off at in the US and all over the world. A campaign to divest from fossil fuels at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania had exploded into a global mass movement with help from groups including 350.org and the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Over the next ten years, the divestment movement spread to not only colleges and universities, but churches, foundations, and state and local governments that cut ties with the fossil fuel industry be refusing to invest in the top 200 coal, oil, and gas companies. Divesting drove home the message that companies whose business model is built on destroying a livable future for humanity should be shunned and treated as pariahs.

A vibrant divestment campaign that eventually developed at UM did not succeed in convincing the university to divest–largely due to opposition from members of the administration and the UM Foundation who worried about offending large donors connected with the fossil fuel industry. However, the campaign did provide hundreds of students with a gateway into climate organizing. Meanwhile, despite making real progress with some sustainable campus initiatives, the university has fallen short on the more ambitious early goals codified in the school’s Climate Action Plan. That document called for achieving campus-wide carbon neutrality by 2020–something that clearly hasn’t happened.

The fact that UM hasn’t divested from fossil fuels or eliminated its carbon footprint doesn’t mean the efforts of activists who campaigned for those goals were pointless. On the contrary; campus sustainability efforts had reduced the volume of climate-warming emissions entering the atmosphere from UM’s operations, and the divestment campaign helped frame the climate crisis in starkly moral terms. But there is clearly much work remaining to be done for the climate at UM and at hundreds of other schools across the US. Indeed, the challenges facing this one university serve as a useful microcosm of events now playing out on a national level.

The early youth climate movement put a major focus on securing carbon neutrality pledges from the administrations at schools like University of Montana. However, the reality is that these goals will be difficult if not impossible to reach in the absence of societal-level changes. We need to transform how we generate electricity, grow food, and get from place to place, not just on campuses but everywhere. Student organizing against large fossil fuel projects like the Otter Creek Mine can help tip the balance toward the clean energy future we all need. Simultaneously, movements like divestment are reframing the actions of fossil fuel companies as morally unacceptable. We need each of these kinds of efforts, as well as locally-based sustainability projects at colleges and other institutions.

Today, many schools like UM have made at least some progress toward reducing their carbon footprints, divestment has redirected trillions of dollars away from the fossil fuel industry, and the idea of significantly increasing US coal exports is mostly dead. Yet, in some ways the situation in Montana is more perilous for the climate than ever; the Governor’s Mansion and both houses of the state legislature are controlled by a Republican trifecta that seems bent on dismantling environmental laws. The successes and setbacks encountered on UM’s journey to a carbon-free future highlight the kind of progress that can be achieved at a strictly campus level, as well as the need to confront larger systems that keep us dependent on fossil fuels.

As I watched students in UM’s University Center clear their tables and deposit leftover packaging to be composted, I was reminded of how two decades of youth-led climate organizing have led us to this moment. What changes will the next twenty years bring, at this school and so many others?

Want to learn more about the youth climate movement? Check out my recently-released book, Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change.

Honoring Charles Henry Turner this Black History Month

Charles Henry Turner. Credit: University of Cincinnati

I once heard a Black activist whom I admire here in Bellingham, Washington admonish a largely White audience at a Black History Month event to remember that the history of Black people is part of our history, too. I took his words to mean that the world all of us inhabit today has been shaped in profound ways by countless Black leaders, innovators, and thinkers, many of whom are never given the credit they deserve in mainstream history books. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have all benefited from Black courage, Black creativity, and Black resiliency. With this in mind, and in honor of this year’s Black History Month, I offer some reflections on how one Black thought leader played a role shaping my own love for the natural world.

I was introduced to the legacy of Charles Henry Turner by a children’s book biography about the zoologist and naturalist. I must have been about ten or eleven at the time. I already had a deep-seated interest in the natural world–especially for all things creepy and crawly, for creatures with scales, antennae, or compound eyes. I was therefore naturally captivated by Turner’s life work, which was to shed light on the complexity of life among insects and other invertebrates.

According the University of Cincinnati, where Turner was the first Black student to earn a master’s degree, he was born just a couple of years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. He grew up in Cincinnati, and it’s fascinating to consider how his own intense interest in animal life began. This was during the heyday of the “nature study” movement, a forerunner to today’s field of environmental education, when it was widely assumed that learning about the plants and animals of one’s local area should be an important part of any child’s education. Turner’s parents were a custodian and a nurse, and Black working-class families like his wouldn’t have access to the same learning resources as children from more privileged backgrounds. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine the young Turner exploring southern Ohio’s fields and woods with the encouragement of teachers. We do know his parents believed deeply in the importance of education and encouraged Turner to continue his after high school. He took their advice, and focused his studies on animals.

After finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University Cincinnati, Turner went on to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago. He was the first Black doctoral student to receive a degree from that school, in 1907. By that time he had amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, which included authoring over 20 scientific papers. However, he was unable to secure a faculty position at a university, presumably because of racist discrimination that would have prevented even such a well-qualified Black candidate as he was from being offered a teaching a job. Turner finally became a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he would raise a family and forge a career as a scientist whose experiments transformed how we view insects.

Turner lived at a time of deeply ambivalent attitudes toward the natural world. The popular nature study movement tended to romanticize nature and often viewed animal life through a highly anthropomorphic lens. On the other hand, the scientific establishment still regarded animals as basically nothing more than advanced machines. Even creatures as close to humankind as monkeys and apes were assumed by scientists to have little capacity for thought, awareness, or emotions. The idea that mere insects might be anything more than miniature automatons would have shocked many researchers–yet, Turner’s studies demonstrated that these tiny creatures interact with each other and their environment in sophisticated ways.

Much of the brilliance in Turner’s approach stemmed from the fact that he took a middle ground to prevailing attitudes about animals. His studies of insect life were scientifically rigorous, avoiding the romanticism with which the nature movement often got carried away. Yet, he also refused to let his ideas about non-human life forms be constrained by the mechanistic worldview then held by much of Western science. He placed insects in home-made miniature mazes to show that they learn and respond to changes in their environment in ways that can only be described as intelligent. At a time when insects were widely assumed to have only the most primitive of senses, he demonstrated that moths hear and honey bees see color. In short, Turner was a true intellectual pioneer, proving that the world of insects and other invertebrates is vastly more complex than most scientists had previously imagined.

As a child I was enthralled by descriptions of Turner’s experiments, which were brilliant in their design but simple enough for anyone to understand. I began designing my own construction paper mazes to test the learning abilities of beetles and caterpillars. My adolescent experiments lacked proper scientific rigor, of course, but they allowed me to share in the sense of discovery all naturalists experience when uncovering secrets of the natural world. It was also around this time that I developed what would become a lifelong fascination with insect behavior. I began to see grasshoppers, weevils, and wasps as creatures whose lives are just as interesting as those of lions or elephants.

Looking back, I can say Charles Henry Turner was one of a handful of naturalists whose work played a pivotal role shaping my own love of and appreciation for the natural world. In fact, at one point I thought I would follow in his footsteps by becoming a professional entomologist. While I did not end up taking that path, my affinity for insects helped inspire me to become an environmental activist and educator. Yet, I was lucky to have even heard of Turner as a child.

Despite his monumental contributions to science, Turner’s work has been widely overlooked for more than a century. His studies on honey bees helped lay the foundation for the work of other scientists like the Austrian Karl von Frisch, who in 1973 received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to our understanding of insect and other animal behavior. Some techniques von Frisch used, like training bees to recognize targets of different colors, appear to have been developed first by Turner. Yet, while the Nobel laureate was readily inducted into the hall of scientific fame, Turner has largely been forgotten. It is time to resurrect his legacy and give him the credit he deserves.

Turner himself was not one to sit passively by when confronted by the forces of oppression. The scientist was also a leader of the civil rights movement in St. Louis who saw equitable access to education as a tool for combatting racism. Even as he transformed our understanding of other species, he was fighting for a more just future for humanity. He knew the effects of racism from firsthand experience, and he wasn’t afraid to speak out.

Charles Henry Turner was a key figure in early twentieth-century zoology, whose experiments transformed the views of other scientists. Despite never being offered a faculty position at a university, he affected the trajectory of biology and helped shape the world we live in today–whether we realize it or not–all while fighting structural racism at every turn. This Black History Month, let us take a minute to honor the inspiring lifework of this extraordinary naturalist.


Sources/further reading: See these resources from the Univeristy of Cincinnati, Oklahoma State University, and WWF for more on Turner’s life and legacy.

Northwest climate activists fight a new front in the movement to stop fossil fuels

On Monday, people across the Pacific Northwest convened online and at two in-person gatherings for a “people’s hearing” on what has become the latest front in the resistance to large fossil fuel projects in the region: a proposed massive capacity expansion of the Gas Transmission Northwest, or GTN, pipeline. Operated by Canadian corporation TC Energy, GTN connects to natural gas fracking fields in British Columbia and stretches across 1,354 miles of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. It is already one of the largest existing fossil fuel pipelines in the region. However, a new proposal called GTN Xpress would see the volume of gas flowing through GTN expand dramatically by 150 million cubic feet per day, an amount roughly equivalent to 26,000 barrels of oil.

“The same company that’s behind the Keystone and Keystone XL pipelines now wants to use GTN Xpress to increase its transport of fracked gas into the Pacific Northwest,” said Audrey Leonard of Columbia Riverkeeper at the hearing. “We’re fighting this dangerous proposal because our climate cannot afford to lock in more fossil fuels.”

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On the wonder of bats

One of my earliest memories involving bats dates back to when I was five years old. I was outside on the lawn at my grandmother’s house in central Washington State, looking up at the darkening evening sky as winged forms darted in and out of my line of vision. I don’t know which of the fifteen bat species found in Washington I was observing, but it seems likely that they were little brown bats, which are common and most active around dusk. My memory is that I heard their high-pitched chirps–and this may have actually happened, since young children can hear sound frequencies emitted by bats that are inaudible to human adults. Even at five, I knew bats were harmless if left to their own devices, so I was not afraid of the creatures swooping and diving after insects above my head. On the contrary, I felt a sense of wonder toward these mysterious creatures of the night, so unlike any other animal I was familiar with.

Probably no other group of mammals commonly found in close proximity to people elicit as many mixed emotions as bats. Long feared in some cultures, today bats are widely recognized as important keystone species in ecosystems from deserts to tropical rainforests. Yet, it seems safe to say that even most people who appreciate bats have seldom if ever had the opportunity to study them at close range in their natural habitat. Their nocturnal habits, flying ability, and the small size of most temperate species all conspire to make bats exceptionally difficult to observe. As a result, even many nature enthusiasts know very little about their local varieties of bats.

This is especially ironic considering that, with almost 1,400 species known to science, bats constitute the second-largest group of mammals, surpassed in diversity only by rodents. Traditionally, they were divided by scientists into two subgroups. The Microchiroptera contained mainly insect-eating bats who use echolocation to find and hunt their prey–like the species I watched at age five. The Megachiroptera, meanwhile, consisted of the usually larger, fruit-eating bat species found almost entirely in the tropics.

Today, this simplistic division has been discarded thanks to new research showing that some insect-eating bats are actually more closely related to members of the “Megachiroptera” than they are to the other insect hunters. Even so, the old classification system can be a useful framework for thinking about the very different feeding strategies evolved by bats in different parts of the world. The insect-eaters are by far the most numerous and widely distributed, being found on every continent except Antarctica and in a wide range of ecosystems. Still, it is in the tropics that insectivorous as well as frugivorous bats achieve their highest level of diversity. This was driven home for me when I visited the Loreto region of Peru in my early twenties. In this heavily forested region home to the upper waters of the Amazon River, I watched from the river’s bank as uncountable thousands of bats emerged at dusk to chase the even vaster number of mosquitoes and other small insects in the air. Most of these were small bats, similar in size to the ones I knew from home, but occasionally I would glimpse the shape of a much bigger bat vanishing into the trees, tantalizingly near but impossible to make out clearly in the dark.

Bats are famous for employing echolocation–a type of natural radar similar to that used by dolphins underwater–to zero in on flying insect prey in the dark. Fruit-eating bats, however, lack this ability and instead rely largely on a keen sense of smell to find their food. It was once assumed that frugivorous bats simply never evolved to echolocate, but it now seems possible that all modern bats evolved from an ancestor with this adaptation. If this is the case, then fruit-eaters would have gradually lost their ability to echolocate for food as they evolved over millions of years to embrace a plant-based diet.

Less than a year after my experience watching bats in Washington, my family visited the Oregon Zoo for the first time on my sixth birthday. Of the many wonderful animals we saw that day, some of the most fascinating were the bats in the African Rainforest section, where Egyptian fruit bats and Rodriguez flying foxes hung from the wire ceiling and fought over slices of melon left dangling for them to feed on. I was particularly enamored with the Rodriguez fly fox, a species that is small compared to other members of the flying fox family, but still impressive with a wingspan of up to three feet. As the name “flying fox” suggests, their furry face and large snout give them a somewhat dog-like appearance that delighted me as a child. To this day, the smell of rotting fruit like that which permeated the bat exhibit can recall to my mind memories of these strange creatures with shiny eyes and leathery wings, using their thumbs to crawl hand-over-hand upside down across the ceiling.

While most bats eat either insects or fruit, there are some notable exceptions. Certain species feed variously on fish, small mammals, or even scorpions. And of course, there are the infamous vampire bats, denizens of the tropics who drink the blood of large animals. This unusual habit historically contributed to giving all bats a bad name, although the vampires are much more likely to bite livestock or wild animals than humans. This hasn’t stopped exaggerated tales of blood-eating bats from taking hold and turning large parts of the human population in some countries against bats in general.

Today, of course, bats are imperiled by the same suite of threats facing most groups of animals, from climate change to habitat destruction to the indiscriminate use of pesticides that wipe out their insect prey. Bats in North America have also been devastated by white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal infection likely introduced from Europe. The elusive nature and undeserved ominous reputation of bats have contributed to them receiving less attention from conservationists than many more charismatic animals–and there is still much we simply don’t know about the threats they face. For example, while around a hundred species are listed as endangered or critically endangered, more than 240 others are classified by scientists as “data deficient,” meaning we lack enough information about them to say whether they are in imminent danger of extinction.

Fortunately, bats also benefit from many of the same actions that help other endangered species. Every time you advocate for your elected representatives to support climate action, attend a hearing to stop a proposed fossil fuel project, or speak up in defense of your local woods or wetland, you are helping bats as well as a host of other creatures. Let an appreciation for the wonder and mystery of bats be one more incentive to continue our work on behalf of a livable planet.


Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region

Climate activists and water protectors honor pipeline resister Joye Braun with a national day of action

I’m honored to have been able to speak with Joye Braun in 2021, for a story on the successful campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Her passing is a true loss to the climate and environmental justice movements.

Photo credit: Twitter/@janekleeb

There was still snow on the ground on April 1, 2016, when Joye Braun set up the lodge that would serve as her temporary home for almost a year. It was on land near the convergence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Braun’s structure was the first erected in the famous Sacred Stone Camp — the original encampment at Standing Rock established to protest construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. She remained an important presence throughout the duration of the protests, serving as a key leader and an inspiration to thousands of people who came to join the resistance to the pipeline. When the camp finally dispersed in February 2017, Braun’s temporary home was one of the last structures to come down.

Continue reading on Waging Nonviolence

What gives me hope for the climate

Last Thursday, I had the priviledge of speaking to a class at Western Washington University about Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change. I always enjoy these opportunities to talk to college students–because, after all, it’s their generation that is at the helm of today’s youth climate movement. The question and answer period sparked some great conversations about the effectiveness of different activist tactics, the role of education in the climate movement, and more. Towards the end, one student posed a question I hear often and which seems to become more pressing each time a new report comes out about the risks of climate catastrophe: how do we, as activists, maintain enough hope to keep going and keep fighting for the sustainable, just future we dream of?

Different activists will of course have different answers to this question. However, learning about the inspiring work of people who are actively engaged in fighting for a livable future is what gives me more hope than anything. In fact, one of the best parts of writing Movement Makers was hearing the stories of more than one hundred youth climate movement leaders whom I interviewed while working on the project. From talking to them, I know that grassroots movements can triumph against overwhelming odds. I know we can take on some of the most powerful industries in the world, and win. And while some dire effects of the climate crisis are already being felt, there is still time to avoid the very worst consequences.

Below is a short list highlighting just a few of the inspiring young people I talked to while writing Movement Makers:

Tim DeChristopher: In 2008, University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher walked into a BLM oil and gas auction determined to interfere with the sale of drilling rights on public lands to the oil industry. Once inside, he hit on the idea of posing as a bidder and bidding on parcels to drive up their price–and eventually, he began winning parcels outright. The auction ended in disarray and was later cancelled by the incoming Obama administration. Perhaps even more importantly, DeChristopher’s creative act of civil disobedience proved inspirational to climate activists all over the country who were looking to emulate the nonviolent tactics of past social movements.

Chiara D’Angelo: In 2015, Shell Oil was preparing to drill in waters off the coast of Alaska thought to be home to vast untapped fossil fuel reserves. Climate activists all over the planet protested the move, which would have endangered Arctic ecosystems while lighting a massive carbon bomb. But one of the most inspiring examples came from the town of Bellingham, Washington, where a Shell drilling support vessel parked in Bellingham Bay on its way to the Arctic. Western Washington University student Chiara D’Angelo chained herself to the ship’s anchor for an amazing 63 hours, coming down only when activists learned the vessel’s departure had been delayed. In the face of mass protests and acts of resistance like D’Angelo’s, Shell cancelled its drilling plans later that year.

Morgan Brings Plenty: When Canadian company TC Energy announced its proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline would skirt the edge of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Morgan Brings Plenty and her mother Joye Braun led a resistance effort that eventually led to hundreds of Indigenous pipeline fighters and their allies training in nonviolent direct action so they could fight back if the pipeline broke ground in a major way. The northern leg of Keystone XL fortunately never got to that point, but many who participated in those trainings went on to lead the resistance to the Dakota Access oil pipeline at Standing Rock to the north. When young people from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Reservaions decided to organize a 2,000 mile relay run from Standing Rock to Washington, DC to protest the pipeline, Brings Plenty coordinated a social media campaign that spread the runners’ message and helped spark one of the largest direct action protests against a piece of fossil fuel infrastructure in U.S. history.

Jamie Margolin: We all know how Greta Thunberg launched the climate school strike movement in Sweden in 2018. But what’s much less widely appreciated is how a group of U.S. teens coordinating over social media pooled their resources to organize a march that helped inspire Thunberg’s activism. It started when Jamie Margolin, then a Seattle high school student, published an Instagram message calling for a climate march Washington; from there, she and three other teens went on to found Zero Hour, a youth-led organization whose day of marches got the attention of students in other parts of the world. Thunberg has said that Margolin, in particular, was inspirational to her as she came up with her plan of striking from school.

Ilana Cohen: For a decade, the most prestigious higher education institution in the U.S. refused to divest from fossil fuel companies who are bent on destroying the planet, despite repeated student requests. The Harvard divestment campaign endured multiple defeats, but in 2019 it received an injection of energy from a new cohort of student organizers like Ilana Cohen, who got her start as an activist organizing for Zero Hour in New York. Cohen and others decided to escalate, and 2019 organized a protest where students and alumni ran onto the field during a Yale-Harvard football game and unfurled banners calling on both schools to divest. The pressure worked; two years later Harvard announced it would let existing fossil fuel investments in its massive $42 billion endowment to expire.

Again, this list features just a tiny sampling of the inspirational leaders I talked to while writing Movement Makers, and whose stories appear in teh book. To learn more about each of these young activists and dozens of equally inspiring youth climate organizers like them, get the book here.

The enduring search for the “grail bird”

Back in 2005, environmentalists and people who care about wildlife celebrated news that seemed too good to be true: a team of researchers said they had found ivory-billed woodpeckers in a remote swamp in Arkansas. There had been no verified observations of these spectacular birds since 1944, and prior to this reported sighting the species was widely accepted to have gone extinct as a result of destruction of their swamp forest habitat by timber companies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, it seemed, they had risen from the dead.

In hindsight, the news might indeed have been too good to be true. The researchers’ discovery was based on blurry photos and video footage, and subsequent searches failed to turn up more irrefutable evidence of ivory-bills’ continued existence. In 2021, the species was declared officially extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But the dream that they might somehow still be out there never completely died.

Indeed, few thought-to-be-extinct animals have captivated people’s imaginations quite like the ivory-billed woodpecker. The largest woodpecker native to the US, their stunning plumage and impressive size gave them the nickname “Lord God bird.” More recently, ivory-bills have become known as the “grail bird,” the rarest of the rare and a prize sought by the most intrepid searchers for species that might no longer exist.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with evaluating available evidence to determine whether a species like the ivory-bill might still be out there, and therefore worthy of continued efforts to protect it. Though the decision would theoretically be based on the best science, it is impossible to remove it from political context. If ivory-bills are officially declared extinct, then developers don’t have to worry about constraints on activities that might further endanger them. Conversely, environmental groups and Indigenous nations have rightly protested that if there is even a tiny chance that ivory-bills continue to haunt the swamps of the Southeast, we should make every effort to protect them. The Cherokee Nation objected to the declaration of extinction based on the fact that the birds are important to Cherokee culture and should be brought back to healthy status if at all possible.

Meanwhile, last year another group of researchers announced they had captured what they believe is footage showing living ivory-bills, this time in Louisiana. The findings have reportedly not yet been peer-reviewed, and have already been contested. But for now, they have rekindled hope that the grail bird may yet be somewhere out there.

Is there good reason to hope that this time, the existence of ivory-bills might be confirmed by additional scientific studies? I honestly don’t know, but I would certainly like to think so. The disappearance of the ivory-bill is tragic in itself, but is also a symptom of the larger decline of the old-growth swamp forest habitat that once stretched across much of the Southeast United States. This unique ecosystem, where Florida panthers and red wolves once hunted in swamps bursting with alligators and water moccasins, has almost completely disappeared due to the depredations of the timber industry. The rediscovery of ivory-billed woodpeckers would be a lifeline for efforts to restore this ancient habitat to its former majesty.

It is, unfortunately, entirely possible and perhaps even likely that these latest reports of living ivory-bills will turn out to be another case of wishful thinking projected onto blurry images. However, if there is any chance at all that the grail bird might still exist, we would do well to do anything in our power to protect it from final extinction.

Photo credit: Lusanaherandraton

What to expect for the climate movement in 2023

The year 2022 was full of ups and downs for the climate movement. At times, it felt like the fossil fuel industry and other polluter interests might once again succeed in derailing major progress toward the goal of securing a livable future. But climate activists and other progressive movements proved more resilient than many observers predicted, and as a result we saw some leaps forward that could be truly game-changing. The question now is, how to build on the sometimes-unexpected victories we won in 2022? Our work isn’t over by any means, and how we continue forward momentum into 2023 could go a long way toward determining whether the would manages to avoid truly catastrophic levels of climate change. Below are some of the major opportunities for the climate movement this year to be aware of:

Implementing the Inflation Reduction Act. In 2022, for the first time, the United States Congress passed major, national climate legislation in the form of a collection of policies included in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). This was a hard-won victory that wouldn’t have been possible without years of organizing that led up to it. Although the IRA isn’t as strong as it should be, the U.S. finally has something resembling a comprehensive, Congressionally mandated plan to reduce carbon emissions across most sectors of the economy. Now we have to make sure the law is implemented well.

One of the truly exciting things for the U.S. climate movement now is that while our work isn’t anywhere near over, going forward the challenges ahead will more closely resemble those of our European colleagues, who are trying to make governments follow through on and strengthen existing climate commitments rather than just commit to doing something in the first place. To make the IRA as effective as possible, we must ensure decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels treat the equitable distribution of funds for clean energy as an urgent priority. Also be prepared to fend off attacks from the fossil fuel industry and conservative lawmakers, who would like to prevent the law from having its intended effect.

Pass state legislation. By far the most progressive climate policies in the United States have been passed at the state and local levels–and 2022 saw progress in this area, with new victories in California, Rhode Island, and elsewhere. But results from November’s elections mean we have opportunities to pass significant new legislation in states where this would have seemed impossible just a short while ago. The state legislatures in Michigan and Minnesota flipped blue in November, which is significant because the Democratic Party, for all its imperfections, is the only major party in this country interested in climate action. Massachusetts and Maryland saw their governorships go blue, so expect to see a renewed focus on climate policy there, too. All four of these states will be ones to watch as activists attempt to push new climate and clean energy bills through state houses this year.

Keep attacking the fossil fuel industry. Last fall, I reported on one of the most exciting new climate organizations I’m aware of: Fossil Free Research. The goal of this campaign is to build on momentum from the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has succeeded in badly tarnishing the coal, oil, and gas industry’s public image. By persuading universities to stop accepting research money from fossil fuel companies, Fossil Free Research hopes to further isolate the industry and make it even more of a social and political pariah. This is a great project to get involved in–especially if you’re a young person attending a higher education institution that currently has research partnerships with the fossil fuel industry.

Solidify the connection between climate and biodiversity. In December, almost 200 countries approved the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, an agreement to protect 30% of Earth’s land and water for biodiversity by 2030. The agreement isn’t as ambitious as it should be, and the United States is not an official participant (this is because the U.S. has not ratified the international Convention on Biodiversity). However, it’s an unprecedented effort to curb species extinction on a global scale–and the Biden administration has set its own conservation goals that are similar to those agreed on in the international framework. And while it isn’t officially a climate agreement, protecting forests, wetlands, and other habitats from degradation will have major consequences for the climate.

As with the IRA, the extent to which the Kunming-Montreal Framework is effective will depend to a large degree on how it is implemented and whether it can be used a starting point to build on with future initiatives. Climate activists can help by working to make sure the connection between biodiversity and a planet that’s habitable for humanity stays squarely in the public spotlight.

Shifting fossil fuel finance. For years, U.S. and international climate activists have been pushing banks, insurers, and other financial institutions to stop forking out money to companies whose business model depends on burning fossil fuels–and last year saw some significant progress in this area, too, including a growing list of companies that are abandoning or ruling out involvement with the East Africa Crude Oil pipeline. I wrote this piece about the inspiring activists who are working to stop this massive fossil fuel project, both in Africa and around the globe. With more and more governments, institutions, and lenders aligning themselves against fossil fuels, it will be interesting to see what other financial players abandon coal, oil, and gas in 2023.

Of course, these are just a few of the areas where the climate movement has the opportunity to build forward momentum in 2023, but they represent some of the most exciting projects and campaigns to watch. Actually, scratch that–the goal for all of us who care about the climate in 2023 should be to not just watch the crucial developments playing out in real time, but get involved with them!

How young climate activists built a mass movement to be reckoned with

The below piece, originally published on Waging Nonviolence, sums up some of the key takeaways from Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change

When I became a climate organizer in college in the early 2000s, the words “youth climate movement” referred more to something activists hoped to bring into existence than a real-world phenomenon.

Growing numbers of young people were concerned about the climate crisis and had begun organizing in small groups on college campuses and in communities throughout the U.S. But as much as we talked about building a mass movement, it was mainly just a dream at that point.

Almost 20 years later it’s impossible to deny a very real, vibrant youth climate movement has become an important force in national politics. With the rise of campaigns like the Fridays for Future school strikes a few years ago, it burst into the public spotlight in an unprecedented way. This year the United States passed its first major piece of national climate legislation. Much work remains to be done, but the rise of a youth-led mass movement for a livable future has to be considered one of the most important positive developments in 21st-century politics.

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