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.


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