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Becoming friends of the Earth

15 09 10 - 21:05 By Jason Francis

Friends of the Earth, founded in 1969, is a non-profit organization based in Washington DC. It is part of Friends of the Earth International, a network of 77 national groups and more than 5,000 local activist groups working together to create a more healthy and just world. With over 2 million members and supporters worldwide, their campaigns include focusing on clean energy as a solution to global warming; protecting people from potentially harmful technologies; promoting low-pollution transportation; and generating support for a financial transactions tax to fund anti-poverty and climate change programs in the developing world. Erich Pica, an internationally recognized expert on energy subsidies, is president of Friends of the Earth US. Jason Francis interviewed him for Share International.

Erich Pica
Share International: Can you tell us about some of the projects that Friends of the Earth US is currently participating in?

Erich Pica: One of the biggest campaigns we are running now is the Climate Justice Campaign, which is linked to the international negotiations on climate change. As a bit of background, most Friends of the Earth International groups have agreed to a set of climate change principles which highlight the importance of reducing global warming gases as well as providing significant funding for clean energy transfers and climate change adaptation to developing countries. In addition to making these financial resources available, the United States and other developed countries need to make more extensive reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions than developing countries.

Putting these principles into practice, during the past several years Friends of the Earth International and Friends of the Earth US have been sending campaigners to the various UN-sponsored conferences where negotiations for an international climate change treaty are taking place - whether it's Copenhagen, Bonn, or elsewhere. These campaigners from Europe, the United States, Africa, South America and Asia give voice to the needs of the developing world at these forums. We also have campaigners in developing countries who are working with their national governments to make sure they are pushing a very aggressive stance on climate change mitigation as well as funding for climate change adaptation.

Campaigners in the United States are pushing the US government to provide more funding and to be more proactive in the energy legislation that’s being debated in the US Congress right now. These multiple campaign activities create a fairly loud voice on the international scene for stronger emission and finance targets.

SI: What are some successes that Friends of the Earth has had over the years?

EP: Friends of the Earth US helped draft the Pavley Law in California in 2002, which was the first greenhouse gas emissions law for vehicles. President Obama just recently made that greenhouse gas standard for vehicles, the law of the land in the United States. Friends of the Earth campaigners in the past have shut down over 200 dams and levees by working against the US Army Corps of Engineers and saving countless rivers from being dammed and diverted.

One of our first fights was stopping supersonic transport from being developed. The supersonic transport program was government-funded passenger airline research that would have created a fleet of airplanes that travel faster than the speed of sound. We argued against that based on environmental and ozone impacts and won that fight.

We have run a number of campaigns through our efforts called the Green Scissors Campaign, which is a coalition of taxpayer, environmental, public interest and consumer groups that cut federally wasteful and environmentally unhelpful spending from the federal budget. Over the years we have cut subsidies for nuclear power, additional dam construction, and oil and gas exploration, saving taxpayers in the US approximately 55 billion dollars during the life of the program.

Working with our international colleagues, we were recently able to create an emission control area around the United States and Canada. Cruise ships currently burn bunker fuel, which is perhaps the dirtiest fuel on Earth, emitting large amounts of toxins and pollutants. Along with the International Maritime Organization and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we were able to create a zone extending about 200 miles from Canada and the United States where these vessels are required to use much cleaner-burning marine distillate fuel. This change will reduce health costs around the country in the 40 ports that violate EPA clean air standards. These are just a few of the victories that we’ve had.

SI: Social justice, as well as environmental issues, are key to the work of Friends of the Earth. What is the group's view of the relationship between social justice and environmental protection?

EP: For Friends of the Earth, social justice and environmental protection go hand in hand. You could protect the environment and your sole mission could be to protect a piece of land, but unless you are addressing the social and economic reasons behind what is causing the environmental destruction in the first place, you are still going to have the root causes impacting the environment in any situation - whether it is over-fishing in the oceans, deforestation in Indonesia, ethanol production in Brazil, or putting coal-fired power plants in poor communities in the United States. Typically, environmental degradation goes hand in hand with the inequality faced by indigenous people around the world.

SI: Proponents of nuclear energy tout it as a solution to global warming. What is Friends of the Earth's viewpoint on nuclear energy?

EP: Friends of the Earth US was in part founded on opposing nuclear power. From an economic angle, the nuclear power industry is still incapable of paying its own way. From the production and mining of uranium to waste disposal, the US government heavily subsidizes nuclear power. From an environmental standpoint there are the problems associated with the mining and processing of uranium, and the disposal of radioactive waste once it has gone through the reactor, which no one has figured out how to deal with around the world. This is an environmental problem, but also a moral one, because we are saddling future generations for tens of thousands of years with managing the radioactive waste being generated by nuclear power reactors.

From a basic global warming perspective nuclear power produces carbon emissions through the processing of uranium from mining. It is not a carbon-free technology. New nuclear power reactors are going to take 10 years to build, and we know we can invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy a lot quicker and it will give us much better results. We just don't see nuclear power as a viable option and we need to start reducing nuclear power now.

SI: What needs to change to lessen the power of both the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries over government officials?

EP: There are multiple levels of reform we have to undertake. First, corporations have too much access. Recently the US Supreme Court decided on the Citizens United case, which essentially gave corporations unlimited free speech, allowing unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns.

There has been a legal theory for about 100 years that corporations should have the rights of people. That doctrine has codified into law and through court decisions a number of precedents that give corporations the rights of you or me. We don't believe that we can have fundamental reform or address the critical issues of the environment, healthcare, or other social justice or progressive causes until we figure out how to reset corporate power. Part of that is Citizens United and campaign finance reform. Part of that is also that corporations get all of the benefits of being a person, but none of the liability.

What happened to the eleven BP workers in the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was essentially negligent homicide. What the spill is doing to the Gulf communities is environmental homicide. If this were a crime scene we would be throwing these people into jail, not allowing them to talk on television and justify and cover up their actions.

Market and corporate fundamentalism have become pervasive in the US economy as well as globally during the last 40 years, typified by the philosophy "in corporations we trust." We no longer question the decision-making of corporations. We give up governmental regulatory authority to corporations. And we have seen the impacts of this philosophy: baseless corporate fundamentalism leading to the largest Wall Street meltdown since the Great Depression. We saw this "in corporations we trust" philosophy as a factor in the BP oil rig disaster. We became complacent. Right now we are at the height of corporate power and fundamentalism.

We as a society need to take that ground back. It's going to take a broader progressive push from the environmental community, the healthcare community, the Civil Rights community, unions, and from the gay, lesbian and transgender rights community. It's going to require a concentrated push from all of these progressive areas to even begin to push back on this fundamentalism, which is in the US government and economic system.

SI: Looking at this broader, collective push, there is going to have to be common ground, a unifying vision. Could that cohesion be the acceptance that we need to move away from a competitive, divisive and materialistic society, no matter where it may be found, and base our economic systems and various other institutions on sharing, where people and the environment come first?

EP: Absolutely. Right now we measure our economic growth and happiness by all the wrong things - how much we can consume and buy - versus the relationships we have and the ability to provide healthy food. In my office I have a quote from the Dalai Lama called the Paradox of our Age. It begins: "We have bigger homes but smaller families. More conveniences but less time." The impact of our consumption-based economy is that we have more 'stuff' but are leading less fulfilled lives. We are throwing more stuff away, yet we are captured by the very things we are buying. We have to rethink this because the planet can’t sustain our rabid consumption of stuff.

SI: We have discussed what has been going wrong with addressing climate change and other environmental issues. On the other side, what needs to be done so climate legislation starts to go right?

EP: Any climate legislation has to start with the science. It has to start with reduction targets that are greater and more aggressive than what scientists are calling the worst case scenario. That means we have to push for far more than 20 per cent reductions. We should start pushing for 40 or 50 per cent reductions by 2020.

There also must be a strong recognition that the United States is a primary emitter of these pollutants. Regardless of what China is doing right now, the United States has been the largest polluter historically. On top of the scientific reductions, we have a moral obligation to go even further because we are the ones basically pushing the planet over the edge.

With the reduction targets, we need to figure out how to reduce emissions and put a price on carbon without using Wall Street-based mechanisms. The problem with the legislation being debated by the US Congress now is that it uses "cap and trade" - a market-based device that essentially empowers Wall Street, the Goldman Sachs' [global investment and trading firms] of the world, to find out ways to make money and maybe reduce global warming emissions. If you believe that corporations already have too much power and authority in society, and in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, it seems like insanity to empower these corporations to make greenhouse gas reductions. We need to put a price on carbon through some sort of tax or fee structure that is managed by the federal government.

It also makes no sense for the government to subsidize or protect the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries - industries that essentially got us into this mess - or even acknowledge that they have a place in the future. We have to make investments both in clean energy research and development, but more importantly in deploying the technologies. We can depend on the marketplace, to some degree, to deploy these technologies, but at some point we have to treat this like World War II or President Kennedy sending a man to the moon. At some point the government needs to be proactive and use its funding and ability to regulate and legislate to push the market, the economy, and consumers to use less energy.

Those are the core principles of a climate bill. You can do that in different ways, but that's what has to happen.

SI: Is there anything else you would like to add?

EP: Global warming is the first radical global symptom of living outside our natural bounds, and requires us to fundamentally rethink how to use, produce and consume energy. This is only the first of the many indicators that we are seeing.

We are seeing the rapid collapse of marine ecosystems. We are seeing a lack of clean water in communities around the world. We are seeing impacts on agricultural land because of industrial farming, which has taken root over the past 40 years. We are seeing the collapse of many of the Earth's ecosystems and natural systems - whether it's the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle or water cycle - that is a result of the Industrial Revolution of the last 150 years.

It's the goal, the call, of the modern environmental movement to fundamentally, once and for all, fix these problems by convincing society that there is a better way. That's the call of the future. That's the call of the present time. If we don’t succeed it's hard to imagine what the planet will be like in 50 years.

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