Forward On Climate Rally Live Stream Feb. 17

Can’t make it to DC with us this weekend?
Tune in here for a live stream of the biggest Climate Action in American history.

Forward on Climate

Another trip to the White House

photo credit: Adam Welz

Unity College is going back to DC! This time to join the LARGEST CLIMATE ACTION the nation has ever seen. Many of you will remember, we’ve taken this trip before: in 2010 on the Solar Road Trip, the following spring to Powershift and a private meeting with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and again in November, 2011 when a squad of Unity students and staff — led by President Stephen MulkeyCircled the White House to say “no” to the Keystone XL Pipeline and “no” to tar sands.

On Sunday, February 17th, we’ll again join thousands and thousands of others outside the White House to support and challenge President Obama and his State Department to do the right thing: move Forward on Climate, and stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Click the image below for details on the event.

Our concerns about the Pipeline are many, but it boils down to this:

  1. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will unleash unbridled development, extraction, and use of Alberta’s tar sands oil, and
  2. emissions from burning that oil is essentially “game over” for the climate.

Read more about tar sands oil and “The Case for Leaving the Carbon in the Ground” from President Stephen Mulkey who a year and a half ago wrote:

 I urge all of us to take this science seriously and to act in every acceptable way to influence our policy makers to begin massive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Join us in DC February 17th to do just that. Unity College climate champions, read on below for trip details.



  • Must register by email (click link) or sign up with the Sustainability Office, and submit $10 deposit by February 8th. Space is limited. Sign up NOW!
  • Must  attend pre-trip meeting February 12.
  • We’ll leave Saturday night, February 16th, on a charter bus with other Maine climate riders.
  • Rally in DC from noon to 4 on Sunday, February 17th.
  • Return from DC Sunday evening and return to Unity pre-dawn on Monday, February 18th.

Tar Sands Action – Portland, January 26

The case for leaving the carbon in the ground

Jim Hansen has used the phrase “essentially game over” when referring to the greenhouse gas emissions that would ensue from the use of Tar Sands oil as an energy source.  To be sure, there is one heck of a lot of carbon in this one source, and Bill McKibben has referred to the proposed pipeline as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”  As discussed over at RealClimate by Ray Pierrehumbert, the amount of carbon in this single source is equivalent to almost half of the future emissions needed to push us above 2 degrees C average warming, which is the point at which the biosphere will become a net source of CO2 as processes such as respiration and burning exceed the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.  The Canadian Tar Sands oil reserves are roughly equivalent to the world’s total reserves of conventional crude oil.  Is it any wonder that TransCanada is fighting tooth and nail to deliver this oil to consumers?  Obviously, the profits to be made from this single source of oil are immense.  Moreover, we must consider the life cycle carbon emissions associated with mining and transporting the Tar Sands oil.  Assuming in situ extraction, we must add 23% – 41% to the carbon footprint necessary for conventional petroleum, thus making this arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet.  The Tar Sands oil is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas growth in Canada and accounts for 40 million tons of CO2 emissions per year.

The article at RealClimate makes the valid point that not all of the estimated 230 gigatonnes of carbon in the Canadian Tar Sands would be mined.   Assuming full production, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that somewhat less than half will be delivered to market over the lifetime of extraction from this single source, although one estimate is that 70% would be recoverable.  In combination with the other sources of coal and oil on the planet, it is clear that either amount would result in massive pollution.  One rationale for using the Tar Sands oil is that this should be viewed as a transitional source of energy to be used while we decarbonize our economy.  This might be a reasonable argument if there were any evidence whatsoever that the US is moving in the direction of reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.   Ray Pierrehumbert draws the obvious parallel to the alcoholic who puts the vodka in the cupboard while promising to drink only a little bit.

What is most troubling about this discussion is that our estimate of the additional warming from this carbon is based on a partial understanding of only first-order feedbacks.  The initial radiative forcing from CO2 added to the atmosphere is only a portion of its warming potential.  To this must be added the near term, or first-order, feedbacks of clouds, disappearing sea ice, and several other relatively short-acting factors such as black carbon (enhances warming) and aerosols.  Aerosols are complex, but their overall global effect in the form of pollution from smoke stacks and tail pipes has been one of cooling because they reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth.  This masks the warming potential of the greenhouse gases.   Indeed, part of the reason for a hiatus in warming for the last few years may have been increased pollution from China.  Using only these first-order feedbacks, it is deceptively comforting to think that we will not cross the 2 degree threshold for possibly several decades while emitting up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon from coal and oil.

This is a considerable overestimate of our remaining latitude for emissions.  There is ample evidence that the second-order, longterm feedbacks on climate are emerging much faster than previously thought.  Specifically, the timeline for permafrost thaw seems to be quite short.  A recent paper from the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that the tundra will become a net source of CO2 by roughly 2025, a date uncomfortably soon.   This estimate ignores the amplification of warming from methane and first-order warming from new CO2 emitted as the tundra progressively thaws.  Similarly, the Amazon has experienced two droughts of 100-year severity within five years, inducing widespread tree death.  The scale of carbon loss from tree death and burning from these droughts will effectively negate the carbon uptake potential of the Amazon basin for an entire year.  Note that the Amazon basin is so large that it could hold most of Western Europe and the UK with room to spare.  Finally, recent research has found that there is widespread forest dieback in progress.  While the cause of this is complex and only partially related to climate change, it nonetheless adds to the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere.  It has now been confirmed that for most forest types dead trees really do burn more frequently than living ones.  Overall, I see no processes or factors that might slow warming during the coming decades.  Thus, I think that we will cross the 2 degree C threshold much sooner  than previously estimated, and I would argue, almost certainly before 2050.

I know that I share a sense of urgency with many other scientists who have studied climate change over recent decades.  During our recent trip to DC to circle the White House, one of our students asked me if I was afraid.  In all honesty, the answer is yes.  From my study of the literature, I believe that our emissions must peak no later than 2020, with strong mitigation thereafter if we are to retain any certainty of avoiding significant and dangerous climate change during coming decades.   A recent report by the National Research Council shows that peak warming is approximately linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted, and that this warming will persist for the next thousand years before beginning a slow decline over the next ten thousand years.  Yes, you read that correctly: The emissions we produce today will have their effect over a millennium and beyond.  I daresay that this gives new meaning to the concept of seven-generations sustainability.  Once the biosphere becomes a net emissions source, we effectively lose leverage to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations through our efforts at mitigation.   That is not to say that mitigation after that point is useless. Quite the opposite is true in that our efforts will need to be all the more strenuous to avoid catastrophic climate change.

It has been suggested to me that my active messaging on the science of climate change is inappropriate for someone in my role as a college president.  I find this quite odd, because I thought that part of my job was to do everything in my power to ensure a bright future for our students.  I urge all of us to take this science seriously and to act in every acceptable way to influence our policy makers to begin massive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.   To the greatest extent possible, we simply must leave the carbon in the ground.  The good news is that there are now compelling data that the conversion to a green economy will be a source of millions of jobs and economic renewal.   The bad news is that the dinosaur economy will be hard to transform.

This is What Democracy Looks Like

The Unity Community has 18 more reasons to be proud this Monday morning.

In Washington D.C. yesterday 18 Unity students 2 Unity faculty and 1 Unity President joined approximately 12,000 concerned people in a celebration of democracy, advocacy, and science at the Circle the White House Tar Sands Action. The action goal was to circle the White House in a line of people locking arms in order to ask President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal this fall. 350’s newest employee, Jean Altomare, Unity College ’11, shared the news that the action doubled its expectation in people and actually circled the White House twice.

In a note to participants after the event 350 founder Bill McKibben said this…

There are days along any journey that stick with you, and today was one of them… Under blue Indian Summer skies, more than 12,000 people from every corner of the country descended on Washington DC; then, with great precision, they fanned out to surround the White House and take a stand against the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Rally speakers included James Hansen, Naomi Klein, McKibben, and Actor Mark Ruffalo.

President Barack Obama was said to be playing golf Sunday morning but apparently was in the White House at least part of the day and his motorcade got close enough to hear Unity student David Maar chanting “Yes we can, stop the pipeline.”

In about 36 hours 18 Unity College students rode 1200 miles, sang 14 songs, visited 6 National Memorials, chanted 53 chants, lost 15 voices, saw 17 old friends, took 1034 pictures, smiled innumerable smiles, and slept very very little.

The students dressed and comported themselves professionally, represented the college very well, and thought hard about Tar Sands and climate change science.

The students were joined by their college president, Stephen Mulkey, whose unmistakable baritone added the most compelling “The people united will never be defeated” that I myself have ever heard. Stephen was tireless in answering questions about the college and about climate change science to eager conversationalists from Maine and elsewhere.

Adjunct Faculty Member, Tom Aversa, joined at the last minute to act as the group’s National Mall ornithological consultant.

Unity Students who should be expected to be a little tired and a lot proud this morning are Amy Kennedy, Tess Cleary, Tim Godaire, Summer Nay, Jenny Wiacek, David Maar, Ian Sypek, Olivia Thornton, Julie Wheeler-Luna, Annica McGuirk, Jake McGinley, Amanda Parmagiani, Annie Witzorreck, Teneele Rowe, Tiffany DeMell, Katie Nolan, and J-bro Davidson.

Unity College Sustainability Coordinator Jesse Pyles provided all the pre-trip logistics, home base support, and one-man-welcome-wagon. Thanks to the President’s Office and the Student Government Association for providing the bulk of on campus funding. Thanks to Andy Burt and her Green Sneakers network for arranging buses and additional funding. Thanks to Jim Reed for the send off and much-welcomed travel treats.

Bus Load of Goodness-Climate Action Style

Our charter bus pulled away from the Unity College Student Center a few minutes early.  As I write, our driver Henry is wending his way carefully up RT 137 towards the highway that will carry us most of our way to Washington D.C. Tomorrow 18 students and 3 faculty will participate in the circle The White House climate change action.

There was incredible energy in the Student Center during our pre-trip meeting–as many names to learn as there were reasons for going.  Jeffrey wants to know whether two thumbs way up on his “thumb-o-meter” indicates an even higher level of enthusiasm.  Yes, is the answer.  When the news broke that the bus was in the parking lot, so did the meeting.  After that it was all backpacks, pillows and water bottles.

Now students are settling in at the back of the bus and boning up on their Tar Sands science, strangers are introducing themselves, and I just overheard President Mulkey say “I’m here to make a point…”


Student Take on Tar Sands Action

Unity’s students are participating in the November 6th Tar Sands Action at the White House for many reasons.  Of course, the science compels the college to support student involvement in the effort.  We also recognize the great educational value in this type of civic engagement; our students are teaming up with thousands of others to connect what they’re learning in their classrooms in our small corner of rural Maine to global issues with real environmental, social, and economic impact.

As President Mulkey documented his reasons for joining the upcoming White House demonstration, we’ll also post thoughts from our students on the trip here at the Sustainability Monitor.  One such student, Dave Maar, is making his second trip to DC this year to add his voice to the mix.  Dave’s done a bit of information gathering on Tar Sands development which you can read up on in this short paper and at his blog

Of the upcoming trip, Dave wrote:

I am taking part in the protest on November 6th against the Keystone Pipeline XL, because the American public needs to know what destruction the pipeline will cause, environmentally and economically.

Stay tuned for more from the Unity team headed to DC.

A Time for Courage and Action

Stephen Mulkey

Photo: Unity College

From Stephen Mulkey, PhD, president, Unity College

It seems to be unusual for a college president to step into what appears to be a political event such as the Tar Sands Action that will take place on 6 November.   Indeed, some of my colleagues at other institutions think that I must be quite mad to join the group that will circle the White House.  As president of Unity College, a liberal arts institution with an environmental mission and a history of activism, it is not only appropriate, but also quite necessary for me to make my voice heard.

As a new college president I ask myself daily how my personal mission is connected with the larger mission of Unity College, and to the broader issues that are so profoundly affecting the students who are in college today.   Since assuming my position in July, I have been vocal and public about the scientific reality of climate change.  Indeed, I take pains to make it clear that my position is based on the science (I have spent my career as an ecologist) and not on any partisan perspective.  The science alone shows that climate change is the single, gravest environmental challenge ever faced by modern humanity, having the potential to profoundly alter much of our planet over the next century and beyond.  In this sense, my personal political perspective is immaterial to my choice to take action.  Simply put, I believe it is my ethical obligation to act in every acceptable way possible to provide a viable future for the students in college today.

Human-caused climate change is now widely regarded as settled science: the climate is warming, and humans have been the major cause of the warming observed since the mid-twentieth century.  There is broad consensus among scientific organizations and academies across the globe.  The list of endorsing scientific organizations is very long, and there are few credible recognized scientific authorities that dispute this reality.   A recent survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy showed that more than 97 percent of practicing climate scientists agree about the fundamentals of this issue.

There can be little doubt that the 21st century is destined to be the century of the environment.  Besides climate change, other critical trends include the increasing human consumption of primary production, maximized and declining capacity to produce food and fiber, precipitous loss of biodiversity, widespread degradation of ecosystem services, increasing shortages of usable fresh water, and depletion of ocean fisheries. The best science has validated these trends, as global change unfolds with increasing speed.  A child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we make major adjustments in our use of natural resources, and bring new sources of energy rapidly on line.  We face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species, and it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously engage in the transition towards sustainability to prevent profound and irrevocable consequences over a millennial time scale.  These are alarming words, but based on my understanding of the science, I do not consider myself alarmist.

Many college and university presidents have supported climate change research and education on their campuses, while often not drawing great public attention to these efforts.  While providing a politically safe environment for these mission-critical activities is crucial, I believe that we must do much more.  Over 600 colleges and universities have signed with the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  Although this commitment is producing measurable results, this is often a quiet commitment, rather than something that is prominently displayed at the institution’s public venues.

We need vocal and public leadership on the science of climate change at this time of dire need.   Education leaders need not align themselves with the political aspects of climate change, and I recommend that we be fastidious in defining this as a scientific issue of immense significance for the wellbeing of current and future generations.   The science with respect to the mining and extraction of oil from tar sands makes it arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet in terms of lifecycle carbon emissions.  I have carefully read and evaluated the State Department’s impact assessment, and I categorically reject their assertion that the lifecycle carbon emissions impact will be minimal.  With due consideration of the assumptions of the study, this is scientific nonsense and it is ethically indefensible.

Given the gravity of our situation, I believe that any reticence by me on climate change would be a failure of courage and leadership.  If the consensus of 32 national academies does not provide sufficient support for my stand, what will?   I have recently challenged our faculty and colleagues with the “mirror test.”  In ten years, will you be able to look in the mirror and say with honesty that you did all that you could as a teacher and leader to bring about the change needed to salvage our children’s future?  I challenge other college and university presidents to step to the podium and speak with strength and courage.   These are strong words, carefully chosen.

The history of our relationship to our environment is, in many ways, a tragic story of our failure to act in time.  Now, again, we have the opportunity to act with courage and integrity to preserve our world for future generations.  Now, we must act in time.

Circle the White House November 6th

Another trip to the White House

Unity's Solar Road Trip team at the White House with Bill McKibben last year. photo credit: Adam Welz

Sunday, November 6th in DC

Join the movement to Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline


 The Deal:

  • Bill McKibben, personally invites Unity College to join him, President Stephen Mulkey, and over 3,000 others for this Tar Sands Action at the White House.
  • Maine climate organizers are chartering a bus to DC for this historic action.
  • Bus travels overnight to and from DC.
    • Bus leaves Maine Saturday evening, November 5th.
    • Bus returns to Maine early Monday morning, November 7th.



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