Our New California Organizing Director on Fighting For the Future

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Climate and EnergyClean Water

by Mia DiFelice

This summer, Food & Water Watch welcomed a new California Organizing Director, Chirag Bhakta. Digital copywriter Mia DiFelice sat down with Chirag to talk about organizing, water issues, and what lies ahead for California. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Welcome to Food & Water Watch, Chirag. I want to start by asking about your background. How did you get into organizing and environmental issues?

Before Food & Water Watch, I was the director of an organizing center here in the Mission District of San Francisco. We focused on developing and training local leaders to become community organizers. Helping folks who are usually counted as numbers, or relegated to outreach work, to lead their own campaigns, so they can organize for the future of their own communities. 

Before that, I worked at an organization focused on affordable housing and anti-gentrification, through a similar lens of How do we gain community control of our futures? How do we fight for a future that’s still open ended? 

For me, as someone who grew up here in San Francisco, an open-ended future is one that allows poor, marginalized, and mostly immigrant communities to have a secure place in the city. One that isn’t precarious to political power or how the city decides affordability. We need to solidify that for us, because otherwise, if the market dictates the future, that future doesn’t include us. 

And that, I think, is the same for climate issues, for food and water issues. But on a scale that’s a lot larger in terms of basic livability. The issues I’m now working on are so fundamental to how we wish to exist on the planet, or how we expect to exist with the planet. 

What drew you to Food & Water Watch, especially from an organizer’s perspective? 

Food & Water Watch centers the hard decisions we need to make as a society. It doesn’t shy away from saying “We need to ban fossil fuels,” or “We need to ban fracking.”

Even now as the climate issue becomes more mainstream and centrist, Food & Water Watch has stayed firmly with its values, on the correct side of the issues.

And it also focuses on how we collectively need to make those decisions. It’s not pushing for a closed-door committee to solve the climate crisis. Food & Water Watch is working to democratize how we’re gonna exist on this planet. 

With other organizations in this space, the how-to is different. The level of trade-off when you’re embedded with the powers-that-be is different. If we’re gonna do this work, why would we capitulate? And why would we let our capitulation define the solutions for everybody else?

If we want a future that looks any different than it does now in terms of climate and power, we have to fight for it ourselves, together. 

When it comes to California, what are you most excited about and what are you most concerned about?

California is a defining policy entity on climate. That gets me excited because there’s a lot of potential here for California to be a real leader. A lot of states, even countries, can take stances on climate change, but when California takes a stance, the markets move. We can actually develop a future that’s possible for the rest of the planet. 

We have all of the resources to do so. What we need is the political will. And we have an opportunity to build that political will in California. Some of that is going to come up in future work we’re planning, focused on the water crisis and drought in the state. 

The water issues in California affect everyone. We all know about the drought, but less so about the why. It’s related to climate change, but a major impact comes from resource exploitation. I think that’s what’s been missing in the narrative around water in California. I’m excited to bring that into the picture.

What has me concerned: the work’s gonna be difficult and the stakes will be big. People’s everyday issues are gonna get bigger and bigger. Rent, food, gas, jobs — people are feeling the strain of our failed economics deeply. That comes before the next rain, the next flood, the next drought, the next wildfire season.

Oftentimes, we speak on these issues on a grand scale, so a lot of people won’t see them as dinner-plate issues. However, for most, these are dinner-plate issues. That’s just not the narrative that’s out there. But we have the opportunity to connect Food & Water Watch’s issues to folks’ dinner-plate issues. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do more in this movement?

Get involved in our volunteer network! We’re gonna be doing a lot of fundamental organizing and exciting movement work in California, especially in 2023. We’re gonna have so many opportunities and actions for folks to be involved in, as climate leaders and champions, in California. 

The advice I have — Don’t think you can’t. If we can shift that mindset, from thinking you can’t to thinking you can, that will fundamentally shift the victories that are possible for us. Our belief in ourselves and each other is a powerful motivator.

Connect with people in your community, find out what’s happening. Don’t be afraid to make your voice heard, whether it’s with local government, state government, or at the national level. The future is yours and you should have a say in defining that. The planet is ours and we need to have a say in defining that.  

Learn more about joining our work, in California and beyond!

After The Supreme Court Blocks Federal Climate Action, States Step Up

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Adam Carlesco

In July 2022, the Supreme Court landed a heavy blow against climate action in its decision on West Virginia v. EPA, which significantly restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. 

The Court’s majority invoked a relatively novel legal theory, declaring that EPA ran afoul of the so-called “major questions doctrine.” Under this new doctrine, the majority held that agencies can’t adopt regulations with “major” implications for the national economy unless Congress has explicitly granted the agency that authority. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the power to pursue a “best system of emissions reduction.” But the Court held that this doesn’t include a broad system of shifting power generation to non-polluting sources (in other words, renewables). Under the ruling, EPA can only require pollution-reducing technology on individual fossil fuel power plants.

This decision, written by the conservative wing of the Court, will significantly limit how EPA approaches the ever-deepening climate crisis. This could hamstring the agency (and other agencies) in future regulatory endeavors. 

West Virginia v. EPA will curb federal climate action. But states with strong climate laws — such as New York, California and Maryland — have become national vanguards confronting this environmental crisis.  

New York’s Climate Legislation Lights A Path Forward

The Supreme Court’s radical conservatives now stand in the way of strong national emissions regulation. But opportunities and successes have risen at the state level. Climate leaders like New York have passed legislation mandating significant emissions reductions in the coming years. 

For instance, the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) requires the state to reduce economy-wide emissions by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. It also requires the state to produce 100% zero-emissions electricity by 2040. Both measures have 2030 goals to make sure the emissions reductions happen fast. 

These reductions aren’t mere suggestions, as industry alleges. They are binding legislative requirements that all branches of state government must uphold and enforce. (Food & Water Watch has sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to consider this law when reviewing gas infrastructure expansions in the state.) 

New York is still drafting its climate action plan. But state courts have already confirmed that the CLCPA’s emissions reduction requirements are binding law. 

Recently, a New York court upheld the Department of Environmental Conservation’s denial of air permits for the Danskammer fracked gas power plant. The court held that if approved, the plant’s emissions would “constitute a substantial and direct source of new GHG emissions in the state.” An approval would thus be “inconsistent with or would interfere with the attainment of the Statewide GHG emission limit for 2030.” 

The state court ruled that, even if the climate action plan is still a work in progress, the CLCPA itself required emissions reductions. The law still empowered state agencies to deny permits for projects that would interfere with the law’s emissions reduction mandates. 

The CLCPA shows how states can move forward on climate action when federal regulators and legislators have failed.

States Can Move Fast On Climate Change

Several states have risen to the occasion to fight climate change with legislation. With such legislation, they can start decarbonizing their energy systems — and their entire economies. 

For example, New York City has banned hookups for fracked gas in new construction. The ban will drastically reduce reliance on fossil fuels while improving local air quality. Washington, D.C. passed a similar policy in efforts to reach carbon neutrality.

In New York, a statewide ban on new gas hookups is now moving through the state legislature with support from Governor Hochul. We’re working to ensure it will pass soon.  Meanwhile, Maryland’s first draft of its Climate Solutions Now Act included similar measures. We’re also working to win that bill’s passage in the next legislative session. 

This is just the beginning of the state-led energy transition spreading across the country. With the federal government limited by an ideologically regressive Supreme Court, states are working on the frontline for climate action. 

We will be demanding even more progress from states over the coming years. We’ll be holding elected officials accountable to their constituents. That means calling on them to lead the charge in combating climate change and transitioning to a clean energy future.

You Can Help Us Push For Progress

Federal elected officials and regulatory agencies often have close ties to powerful corporations. But elected officials and agencies at the state and local levels are more likely to listen to community action and organizing. 

Now is the time to call on your state and local elected officials to fight for bold, uncompromising climate action in your community. We can tell our local lawmakers to pass climate legislation today.

Start with New York: Tell Your Rep To Ban Fracked Gas In New Construction Now!

After WV v. EPA: 5 Ways We Keep Fighting For The Climate

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Mark Schlosberg and Tarah Heinzen

Last week, the Supreme Court rounded out a term full of extremist rulings with West Virginia v. EPA. The court ruled that the EPA can’t mandate an energy sector transition from coal power to less polluting energy sources. This gift to the fossil fuel industry is a major blow to federal efforts to address the climate crisis. But we can’t let the corporatist Supreme Court push us over the climate cliff. Instead, we need to redouble our efforts. There is still so much we can do — at the federal level, in the courts and in states and municipalities across the country.  

Here are five ways we can fight for and win a livable planet: 
1. Pressure Our Other Branches Of Government Toward Climate Action

WV v. EPA pulled one tool from the EPA’s toolbox, but President Biden and his agencies still have plenty of options. Biden could declare a climate emergency, allowing him to, among other things, halt fossil fuel exports. He and his agencies could also stop approving new fossil fuel projects and new drilling on federal lands. They could stop advocating for industry scams like carbon capture, which will prolong our fossil fuel dependence. And Biden could use his bully pulpit to rally governors, state and local officials and heads of state toward bold climate action. 

Even after the Supreme Court’s decision, the EPA can still take meaningful action. It can adopt rules that will ratchet down climate pollution at fossil fuel plants. It can target other dangerous co-pollutants, leading to reduced climate pollution as well. And, while WV v. EPA focused on Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA can use Section 112 to classify carbon emissions as hazardous. This would open doors to further regulation. Food & Water Watch filed a petition calling on the EPA to do just this in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Congress still has the power to act decisively. We need to continue to work with and cultivate climate champions within Congress. Those champions can pass legislation that will confront the fossil fuel industry, stop fracking, ban fossil fuel exports and advance our transition to renewable energy.

2. Continue Taking The Fossil Fuel Industry To Court

Despite WV v. EPA, we have other options for holding our government and fossil fuel interests accountable in court. By law, agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must consider the environmental impacts of projects like pipelines before approving them. These impacts cover climate change, air pollution and environmental justice. If FERC fails to fully consider them, courts can — and do — strike down approvals as unlawful. This can delay and sometimes kill projects altogether. 

Litigation is also key to adopting and protecting a wide range of Biden administration rules, including rules to strengthen these environmental reviews. Proposed rules could restore states’ rights to block infrastructure projects that will harm their environment. They could also require climate change disclosures and stop oil and gas leasing. 

With our allies, Food & Water Watch is on the front lines of these legal fights. We’re holding fossil fuel companies accountable in court for violating existing laws. We’re also pushing the federal government to finally start accounting for climate change and stop greenlighting polluting projects. All of this work helps to stop fossil fuel companies from locking us into decades more climate emissions. 

3. Organize For Aggressive Action At The State And Local Level

Beyond federal action, we have many options for action at the state and local level. For example, California is currently considering its near-term climate plans. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, the Golden State has a huge influence on the future of our climate. 

Food & Water Watch and over 150 of our allies recently submitted comments calling on Governor Newsom and the California Air Resources Board to chart a bold path. That includes a rapid transition off oil and onto 100% renewables, as well as a ban on all new oil drilling and gas infrastructure.

From Pennsylvania to Iowa, Oregon to Florida, we’re working with communities against fracking and factory farms, pipelines and power plants. We know firsthand that when communities organize and come together, we can win real change. 

4. Expose The Illegitimacy Of Today’s Reactionary Supreme Court And Fight For Court Reform 

The rightwing supermajority on the Supreme Court is the result of years of organizing by the Federalist Society and rightwing activists. The Court is now executing its reactionary agenda in a way that undermines environmental protections, civil liberties and ultimately, our democracy.

It’s no coincidence that five members of this majority were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote in their elections. This majority has advanced deregulatory and dangerous agendas, while straying further from public opinion. On top of that, this fall, the Court will hear a case that could take away the people’s power to decide elections. Instead, it could place that power in the hands of state legislatures. Election protections and accountability have never been more important.

Our elected leaders cannot just accept this rightwing hijacking of the judiciary. Instead, they must fight back with every tool at their disposal. This means publicly attacking the legitimacy of these decisions. It means pushing to restore balance by expanding the number of justices on the Court. Food & Water Watch has joined coalition efforts to reform the Court. This must be a priority if we are to preserve our democracy.

5. Vote Like We Live Here

Finally, we need more people engaged in elections at the local, state and federal level. People need to register to vote and engage their friends, family, and neighbors — especially those who haven’t voted before. We need to generate a massive turnout at the ballot this November and at every ballot moving forward. 

To beat back the avalanche of corporate money shaping the courts and controlling legislatures, we need an overwhelming show of people power. We can’t win alone. It’s going to take all of us fighting like we live here to win the livable climate and just society we all want and need. 

The fight is far from over. Help us spread the word!

How Biogas Factories Could Put Our Lowest State Underwater

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Greg Layton

We know we’re running out of time on climate change. Without a rapid drawdown on fossil fuels, catastrophic effects of global warming will become unavoidable. But in Delaware, the poultry industry and its allies are going in the opposite direction. They’re promoting a new fuel: methane derived from poultry waste. Rather than reduce emissions, biogas will only worsen the climate effects, like sea-level rise, for our country’s lowest-lying state.

Biogas Will Lock in Climate-Warming Emissions

Plans to extract methane from poultry waste in Sussex County threaten to add to  greenhouse gas emissions for years to come.

Delaware currently faces two proposed projects, one by Bioenergy DevCo and one by CleanBay Renewables. These projects would release massive amounts of methane, the greenhouse gas 90 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Emissions from the Bioenergy DevCo project alone would have the same per-year climate impact of a typical car driving 71 million miles

Poultry waste itself doesn’t emit significant amounts of methane. However, the biogas projects planned for Delaware deliberately create new greenhouse gases to “capture” for profit. To do that, they need to haul in factory farm waste from around the tri-state area. All that means more emissions, to the tune of more than 20,000 diesel-powered truck trips per year. 

On top of that, it appears that the methane from Bioenergy DevCo would not be used instead of fracked gas; it would be used in addition to fracked gas. This will entrench fossil fuels in addition to factory farms, while allowing the industry to slap the “renewable” label on the same old climate-destroying gas system.

Without serious climate action, here’s what Delawareans can expect.

Hotter Weather

The average temperature in Delaware has risen about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895. Within 50 to 60 years, scientists expect the state’s average temperature to exceed its preindustrial average by more than 4 degrees. Extremely hot days will likely also increase. Currently, Delawareans experience an average of two days over 100 degrees each year, but scientists predict we’ll experience as many as 28 days above 100 degrees by 2100. Heat waves are already the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States, and climate change will only make them worse.

Sea-Level Rise

Melting polar ice sheets have caused the world’s oceans and bays to rise, and Delaware, already the lowest-lying state in the nation, is sinking at the same time. (In fact, sea level is rising at Bowers Beach, Del. faster than anywhere else on the East Coast.) Sea level along Delaware’s coasts has already risen more than one foot since 1900. With continued warming, Delaware’s coasts will likely disappear under anywhere from 16 to 48 inches in the next century.

Property Loss

If Delaware’s coastal sea levels rise even two feet, the state will lose about 8% of its land (a little over 110,000 acres) and nearly all of its protected wetlands.  Dozens — if not hundreds — of homes would be destroyed. Currently, about 22,000 Delawareans are at risk from coastal flooding, but that number could surpass 30,000 in just a few decades. Millions of dollars of damage are almost inevitable, and would be devastating to Delaware’s beachside tourism industry.

Pests and Disease 

Climate change will warm the state earlier in the year and bring more rain — and more puddles. This is like rolling out a welcome mat for mosquitos. Though already, researchers estimate that Delaware’s mosquito season has extended weeks beyond its historical average. And more mosquitoes means more opportunity for blood-borne diseases like Zika and West Nile Virus to spread. 

Ecological Mayhem

Finally, climate change will displace wildlife and their habitats. For instance, each spring, nearly a million migratory shorebirds feast on horseshoe crab eggs in tidal flats and beaches. But those tidal flats and beaches will likely disappear underwater. 

Additionally, rising sea levels will bring salt water further up rivers, eventually intruding into aquifers near the coast. Soils might become too salty for crops and trees that currently grow in low-lying areas. Upland, early warm weather could prompt many wildflowers and woodland plants to grow and blossom too soon for the migratory animals that feed on them. 

How You Can Fight Back

Ultimately, we must transition off of carbon-based fuels like methane as quickly as possible. Pursuing new sources is unconscionable. Delaware’s elected officials must instead urgently pursue real solutions to the climate crisis. Biogas has no part in that solution.

The companies behind the biogas scheme need state permits to go ahead with their dirty projects. Governor John Carney has the power to say NO to biogas. Use your voice to tell him that Delaware doesn’t need another source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Tell Governor Carney that Delaware is done with greenhouse gases.

1. A National Ban On Fracking Is Key

Categories

Climate and Energy

A national ban on fracking is key

Banning fracking everywhere is crucial. If we don’t, the fossil fuel industry will lock us into climate chaos for decades.

There is no such thing as safe fracking.

2. WE MUST END FOSSIL FUELS

Categories

Climate and Energy

We must end fossil fuels

Fossil fuel production and usage is one of the leading drivers of climate change.

We have to be the architects of a new fossil fuel-free future.