Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you’d like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.Christine Colbert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She lives and writes in Washington.
Not long after President Trump decided that the United States should withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg told his constituents that if it turned into a “real” problem, God would “take care of” climate change.
Social media buzzed with dismay and alarm over the Michigan congressman’s attitude, since it runs counter to overwhelming scientific evidence concerning climate change.
Yet if you live in a religiously conservative state, as I once did, Walberg’s statement would not be surprising. I was born and raised in a Mormon family in Utah, where the word “environmentalist” is still considered by many to be foul language. I’m no longer a practicing Mormon, but rather a convert to the wonder of the outdoors, thanks to the education I received while exploring Utah’s vast public lands. I did not need to lose my religion to become an environmentalist, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.
Years ago, I asked my dad why he didn’t think climate change was a threat. He replied that the second coming of Jesus Christ would take care of any “problems.” In other words, he believed a wipe-down of our planet would ensue upon Christ’s arrival back on earth. I was alarmed. This seemed to me like a rather large bet to make. But my father added that because he “knew” Christ would come again, it wasn’t a gamble for him and he didn’t need to worry about the future.
But as the public response to Walburg’s statement demonstrated, this idea is not very reassuring to the majority of the American people. The science behind global climate change is overwhelming. What if the supernatural cleanup orchestrated by God failed to occur? And what if it came too late to matter?
I believe there is a strong religious argument to be made that we all have a responsibility to protect our planet. Caring for creation is emphasized in many religious texts, and in particular, by the Bible. Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical on the subject — Laudato SI’, subtitled On Care for Our Common Home. In the case of my family’s religion, in the Book of Mormon as well as Doctrine and Covenants, God instructs his children to tread lightly upon the Earth, to be sure that we do not defile or pollute it, and to use the planet’s gifts sparingly and conscientiously.
All scripture is open to interpretation. But here’s my take: Imagine your mother asked you to clean your room, and not only that, to take good care of your things, including your stuffed animals, your Barbie dolls and your action figures. She told you to care for each one because she gave them to you, and she loves them just like she loves you. (Yes, in my story, Mom loves your childhood toys.)
But you decide not to clean up your room. In fact, you dump a couple cans of paint on the carpet and smear fecal matter all over the walls. You light a fire in the middle of the room, throw your toys and plush animals into it, and let the air fill with smoke — endangering the house and everyone in it. How do you think your mom will react? I remember numerous mentions in the Bible about a vengeful God who doesn’t take kindly to man’s willful disregard for his commandments. Epic flood, anyone?
Which brings me back to Rep. Tim Walberg, and his dismissal of science and the future of our planet. Walberg and others like him can decide that climate change doesn’t concern them, and if they’re correct, God will fix it all. But when? And after how many of the earth’s plant and wildlife species have disappeared, become displaced, or gone extinct by the effects of climate change? And by destroying our environment for the sake of continued fossil fuel extraction and use, what does that say about us humans as stewards of the land?
Creating harmony between religious beliefs and the conservation of our planet is really quite easy. Even for those who believe that our warming planet poses no real threat, advocating for clean air, water, and protecting Earth’s teeming diversity of plants and wildlife is still something everyone can get behind. Or mostly everyone.
Because I’m thinking that God would love to see his children taking care of their planet, and not totally gutting the place.
Thursday 13 July 2017 07.00 EDTLast modified on Sunday 16 July 2017 05.31 EDT
Last year was the most perilous ever for people defending their community’s land, natural resources or wildlife, with new research showing that environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world.
Two hundred environmental activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders trying to protect their land were killed in 2016, according to the watchdog group Global Witness – more than double the number killed five years ago.
And the frequency of killings is only increasing as 2017 ticks by, according to data provided exclusively to the Guardian, with 98 killings identified in the first five months of this year.
John Knox, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said: “Human rights are being jettisoned as a culture of impunity is developing.
“There is now an overwhelming incentive to wreck the environment for economic reasons. The people most at risk are people who are already marginalised and excluded from politics and judicial redress, and are dependent on the environment. The countries do not respect the rule of law. Everywhere in the world, defenders are facing threats.
“There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, eliminate anyone who stands in the way. It [comes from] mining, agribusiness, illegal logging and dam building.”
In May, farmers in Brazil’s Maranhão state attacked an indigenous settlement, hacking with machetes at the hands of their victims in another land conflict that left more than a dozen in hospital. There have also been killings of environmental defenders and attacks on others in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and many other countries since the new year.
Most environmental defenders die in remote forests or villages affected by mining, dams, illegal logging, and agribusiness. Many of the killers are reportedly hired by corporations or state forces. Very few are ever arrested or identified.
This is why the Guardian is today launching a project, in collaboration with Global Witness, to attempt to record the deaths of everyone who dies over the next year in defence of the environment. We will be reporting from the world’s last wildernesses, as well as from the most industrialised countries on the planet, on the work of environmental defenders and the assaults upon them.
Billy Kyte, campaign leader on this issue at Global Witness, said that the killings that make the list are just the tip of an epidemic of violence.
“Communities that take a stand against environmental destruction are now in the firing line of companies’ private security guards, state forces and contract killers,” he said. “For every land and environmental defender who is killed, many more are threatened with death, eviction and destruction of their resources.
“These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.”
Around the world, the number and intensity of environmental conflicts is growing, say researchers. An EU-funded atlas of environmental conflict academics at 23 universities has identified more than 2,000, ranging over water, land, pollution, evictions and mining.
“These are just the reported ones. There could be three times as many. There is much more violence now,” said Cass business school researcher Bobby Banerjee who has studied resistance to global development projects for 15 years.
“The conflicts are happening worldwide now because of globalisation. Capitalism is violent and global corporations are looking to poor countries for access to land and resources. Poor countries are more corruptible and have weaker law enforcement. Companies and governments now work together to kill people,” he said.
The 2016 Global Witness data shows that the industries at the heart of conflict were mining and oil, which were linked to 33 killings. Logging was in second place worldwide – with 23 deaths, up from 15 the previous year – followed by agriculture. That ranking could change. In the first five months of this year, the most striking trend is that for the first time agribusiness is rivalling mining as the deadliest sector, with 22 deaths worldwide – just one short of the total for the whole of last year.
The situation in Colombia in particular has gone from bad to worse in 2017. Brazil and the Philippines are also on course to hit new highs and indigenous groups continue to suffer disproportionately.
In terms of country rankings, in 2016 Brazil was once again the deadliest country in absolute terms with 49 killings, many of them in the Amazon rainforest. Timber production was implicated in 16 of those cases as the country’s deforestation rate surged by 29%.
More broadly, Latin America remained the most dangerous region for anyone wanting to protect rivers, forests, mountains and oceans, accounting for 60 of the global total of killings of environmental defenders even though it is home to less than a tenth of the world’s population.
With major economic interests at stake, state security forces were behind at least 43 killings globally – 33 by the police and 10 by the military – while private actors such as security guards and hitmen were responsible for 52 deaths.
The human cost of all this is terrible, said Laura Cáceres, one of the daughters of Honduran indigenous Lenca leader Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016after resisting the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river.
Now in exile following death threats, Cáceres was recently in Oxford, in the UK, at a conference organised by Not1More (N1M), a group founded in 2016 in response to the violence facing environmental defenders.
“Berta Cáceres was a hindrance to the system,” she said. “[Honduras] is so battered; 30% of the land has been granted to transnational corporations. Companies are taking over ancestral territories. Forests are being privatised. My mother was passionate about her land, her roots, and she was horrified by the sinister and violent forms with which imperialism acts.”
Shortly after the conference the Guardian reported that another of Cáceres’ children, Berta Zúñiga had survived an armed attack soon after being named leader of the indigenous rights organisation formerly led by her mother.
Defenders frequently say they get no help from government, indeed corrupt governments are often implicated in the violence.
One west African anti-illegal logging activist, who asked not to named for fear of reprisals, said: “I am subject to pressure and threats. Millions [of dollars] are coming out of the forests and yet people have nothing – no schools, no health centres. Money is not going to the state but to private people. We are working without resources.
“My family has been threatened with death. We have had anonymous calls. I keep working with the help of my colleagues. We gave information to the UN, and asked for help. We got nowhere. We could be killed any moment.”
Wildlife defenders are also being increasingly targeted. More than 800 park rangers have been killed by commercial poachers and armed militia groups in the past 10 years, according to US group Global Conservation.
“Rangers face high levels of violence and are being [killed] at an alarming pace,” says Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation. “Almost 60% of those killed in 2016 were from Asia, with the majority from India.”
“Much less organised and prepared defenders, people who might be forced unexpectedly into protecting their lands due to evictions or enormous infrastructure developments, are up against the same violence.”
N1M co-founder Fran Lambrick told the Guardian: “Frontline environmental defenders are critical in fighting climate change, protecting our natural resources and upholding human rights and cultural identity. Yet they face violent reprisals, threats and criminalisation.”
“We are defenders of life,” said Laura Cáceres. “We are willing to do anything to allow life to continue. We don’t want to lose our lives and lose our mamas and families. But we assume that risk. If they can murder someone with high recognition like my mother Berta, then they can murder anyone.”
Environmentalists want the Astoria City Council to oppose an oil-by-train terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
Local and regional environmental groups asked the Astoria City Council Monday night to join with other Pacific Northwest cities to oppose an oil terminal they say threatens the health of the Columbia River estuary.
The Tesoro Savage oil-by-rail terminal at Washington’s Port of Vancouver, first announced in 2013, would be the largest oil-by-rail project in North America. Five mile-and-a-half long trains would carry a daily output of 360,000 barrels of crude oil. The oil would be put on oil tankers that would then cross the Columbia River Bar, according to nonprofit environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.
The project could “dramatically increase” the danger of an oil spill on the Columbia River from trains coming into the terminal and the vessels going downstream, said Dan Serres, the group’s conservation director.
The City Council had opposed a liquefied natural gas and pipeline project in Warrenton in 2015, Serres said. He spoke Monday seeking a similar resolution, this time for the oil-by-rail project.
“That statement (in 2015) resonated statewide,” Serres said. “… It marked this area as being a place where people like to help the river.”
Vancouver, Spokane, Portland and Hood River have already spoken out against the project. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will make the final decision on whether to approve or deny the project, a decision he is expected to make sometime late this year or next year.
Of chief concern to Serres and others opposed to the project are the trains themselves.
“This is a new thing for the United States,” Serres said. “We haven’t moved oil by train in this volume ever before. In 2012, this started to ramp up. In 2013 we started to see trains derail.”
He pointed to an oil train that derailed and caught fire in Mosier, a town in the Columbia River Gorge, last year. That derailment and the small oil spill in the river that resulted was a “taste” of what could happen elsewhere, he said.
Jan Mitchell, who serves on the Astoria Planning Commission, urged the council to join the other cities in opposing the project.
“Anything that happens to the river upstream, happens to us,” she said.
City councilors asked questions and expressed concern over the safety issues, but Councilor Bruce Jones, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, pointed out that refined petroleum products move up and down the river at least five days a week, if not on a daily basis.
There are products the Pacific Northwest requires for its economy and industry to function, he said. If these products weren’t being moved on the river, they would be in trucks on the highways.
“I think it’s a complex issue,” he said. “Petroleum products moving on the river, it’s easy to say this is real black and white, it’s bad. But then again compared to the alternatives, it moves safely on the river now.”
The tankers that carry petroleum products or other hazardous chemicals must pass stringent regulations. When Jones was captain of the port, he said he was more worried about an oil spill from a grain ship than from a petroleum tanker. They carry massive amounts of fuel and are not maintained to the same standards required of the petroleum tankers.
“The grain business, they operate on very small margins,” Jones said, “… so some of those grain ships sitting out there are real pieces of work.”
The river is a highway, Jones said. “It’s a place of beauty and natural resources and fish and sea lions and it’s also a highway and it has been ever since before the first white people came here. It was a commercial highway.”
He said he respects the work Columbia Riverkeeper does to protect the environmental health of the river. He wants to look closely at the project’s environmental impact statement, current safety regulations related to oil tankers, and talk to the bar pilots who would be tasked with guiding these tankers back and forth across the dangerous system of sandbars at the Columbia River’s mouth before giving his approval to a resolution opposing the oil-by-rail terminal project.
City staff will work with Serres to craft a resolution to bring before the City Council in August.