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Annals of a Warming Planet
A Post-Ginsburg Court Could Be One More Climate Obstacle
September 23, 2020
Ginsburg’s death shows that established channels cannot address our greatest crisis. Any chance we still have will require abnormal action.Photograph by B. Christopher / Alamy
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mong its many other tragic consequences, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
may dramatically complicate the process of finding a legislative solution for the climate crisis. It now seems possible that a Democratic
White House and Congress could convene in January, with a commitment to finally—after three decades of ducking—taking federal action on global warming. Indeed, after this record season of flame and gale, new polling
shows that three out of four Americans blame climate change
for natural disasters, and one in five are open to the idea that they may need to move in order to escape danger. But, if public pressure for action is mounting, structural obstacles may be mounting, too.
The filibuster is one such block. As long as the oil-and-gas industry remains dominant in the Republican Party
, it’s hard to imagine finding sixty votes for serious climate action. But Democratic leaders seem more and more committed to ending that procedural tradition, especially if the G.O.P. insists on forcing through the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice before next year. A lopsidedly conservative Supreme Court
may be harder to overcome. Since 2007, the federal ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act has rested
on a one-vote margin in Massachusetts v. E.P.A. The Court repeatedly messed
with the original New Deal, frustrating FDR no end; even the most modest version of the Green New Deal would face an immediate Court challenge and, quite possibly, bleak prospects in a post-Ginsburg judiciary. It’s one issue of several that might motivate the Democrats, if they win in November, to restructure the Court; some have suggested adding new Justices. But it’s also a bracing reminder that we need strategies for rapid and sweeping change that don’t rely entirely on congressional action.
In particular, activist pressure on big oil companies may be producing a sea change in the world view of at least some of those companies. BP has promised to reduce oil and gas production by forty per cent this decade, and, last week, its C.E.O. said that 2019 may have marked peak oil demand—a scandalous break with the industry gospel of ever-rising demand. The Telegraph called
the remarks a “cluster bomb” thrown into the energy debate; the Financial Times said
that they might mean the “slow death of big oil.” A new academic analysis
dismisses much of the industry rhetoric as greenwashing, but, at least in Europe, corporations may have little choice: new E.U. legislation would dramatically scale up
the continent’s commitment to carbon reductions. And campaigners are growing savvier. As more and more big banks announce
that they want their lending practices to align with the Paris climate accord, a consortium of sixty environmental groups last week laid out an analysis
showing just what that would have to mean in practice: in essence, no more loans for anything that expands the size of the fossil-fuel
And, if congressional action continues to be blocked, activists will look elsewhere for change. This month, for instance, Connecticut, Delaware, and the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, all announced plans to sue big oil companies for climate damages. It’s useful to remember that it was state attorneys general who brought Big Tobacco to heel. And, of course, some jurisdictions may be large enough to force action on their own. Governor Gavin Newsom, of California, gave a perfect example on Wednesday, announcing plans to ban sales of gas cars by 2035 in a state that has the fifth-largest economy in the world. That’s the biggest boost the electric vehicle market has received yet.
Ginsburg’s death––not to mention Tropical Storm Beta, spinning in the Atlantic––is a reminder that normal action through established channels has done pitifully little to address our greatest crisis. Any chance we still have will require distinctly abnormal action.
PASSING THE MIC
A Brooklyn native, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and the founder of Ocean Collectiv, a strategy-consulting firm for conservation solutions grounded in social justice, and Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities. Dr. Katharine Wilkinson
, an Atlantan and one-time Rhodes Scholar, is the author of, among other things, the Times
.” Together, they’ve edited a fascinating new anthology, “All We Can Save
,” featuring perspectives on the climate crisis from fifty-eight women across the United States.
You shaped this grand collection of essays: Are there a couple of uniting threads?
The subtitle is actually a good description of some of the threads: “Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.” The book was supposed to be around twenty essays but ended up as forty-one essays and seventeen poems, plus quotations and original illustrations, because there’s just so much to this topic and so much good work being done. As co-editors, we were extremely deliberate in our curation, making sure the essays were forward-looking, neither wallowing nor Pollyanna, making sure as many perspectives and insights were included as possible.
Over the nine months from the day we began putting the book together to the publication date, the world has changed so much—from the hunkering down of the pandemic to the uprising for Black Lives Matter. So when we sat down to give the manuscript one last read before sending it off to the printer, we were nervous that the book would not meet this moment. But we should not have feared, because the contributors to the book—activists, scientists, wonks, farmers, journalists, and artists; women spanning generations, geographies, races, and areas of expertise—are people who have long been thinking deeply and intersectionally. Throughout the collection, a commitment to linking arms as we each play our part in this great transformation shines through. And, as we write in the book’s final paragraph, “If there is one theme that runs through the collection, it is ferocious love—for one another, for Earth, for all beings, for justice, for a life-giving future.”
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Some of the greatest figures in the climate story—from Eunice Foote to Christiana Figueres—have been women. The books posits a “characteristically feminine and faithfully feminist” voice on climate. What does that sound like?
The first thing is that it doesn’t sound like one voice—it sounds like voices
, like a mighty chorus. That’s really how we think about what these pages contain. This isn’t a book about heroes (even though it opens with one of ours: Eunice Newton Foote, the scientist who discovered that carbon dioxide would lead to planetary warming). We hope “All We Can Save” is a reflection of the diverse community showing up in and for this moment. We don’t think feminine and feminist climate leadership is limited to any gender, but women are certainly bringing it in droves. It’s deeply collaborative, focussing on making change rather than being in charge. It insists on centering justice as necessary and right and effective. It integrates the powers of heart and head. It focusses on building community because we can’t build a better world without it. So there are no untethered techno-utopian whimsies in “All We Can Save.” But there is an abundance of courage, connection, healing, nurturing, creativity—a lot of things historically sidelined to the detriment of the climate movement. But they’ve always been here, and they’re upwelling now with what we’ve come to call the feminist climate renaissance. And to carry forward the work of unfurling this renaissance, we have co-founded the All We Can Save Project
, a nonprofit to support women climate leaders.
2020 has been a grim year on the climate front. Are there things surprising you as climate experts?
We have certainly been aware of the scientific projections: how dire they are and how much is at risk. But, despite that, both of us have been knocked sideways a bit to see all these changes happening so fast and colliding. The news that Greenland’s ice melt has passed a tipping point and will be gone for sure—it’s just a matter of how long. The massive fires across the West. The rapidly intensifying and slow-moving hurricanes in the Gulf. The heat waves. The droughts. All at once, wreaking havoc on so many lives, both human and wild. Even though we’ve had our eyes wide open and stay pretty current on the science, we had hoped for a little more time before all these extreme weather events and climate shifts kicked in. But here we are. And we are also here in this moment of crisis for our democracy, approaching a perilously close election, where the stakes for our climate couldn’t be higher. All this only strengthens the imperative to heed the wisdom of these women climate leaders and to follow their wisdom toward all we can save.
At the heart of the challenge of climate work is staying awake to what’s happening and cultivating a vision of possibility. In a year like this, when so much is being lost, when the bad news is so damn bad, that’s especially hard to do—and all the more necessary. One of the things we feel really convinced about is that you can’t cultivate radical imagination alone. You have to do it together. So we’re kicking off All We Can Save Circles the week of October 5th to support the kind of community-building and more generous dialogue we know we need to stay in the work and do it well. Join us?
In East Africa, extreme flooding continues
to displace hundreds of thousands of people, amid the coronavirus pandemic and a historic locust outbreak. “We fear the worst is yet to come, with the peak of flooding season normally in November and December,” the United Nations humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council last week.
For years, activists have argued that new pipelines are unsound, since they commit regions to decades of dependence on fossil fuels, and those campaigners have managed to block many projects. Now the Houston Chronicle says
that financial institutions are growing more flinty-eyed, too, cutting off funding for some long-planned installations. It reports that “the cancellations reflect a newfound wariness among banks to back the projects in view of an uncertain future for fossil fuels.”
It is worth noting again, that even in 2020, the President of the United States continues
to claim that science is wrong about climate change; indeed, he insists that our Earth will soon cool.
During the High Holy Days, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, who helped found the new Jewish climate group Dayenu, offers reflections
on the theological dimensions of our crisis. “Most years, the shofar blasts awaken us. This year, we are already painfully awake.” (Full disclosure: I’m on the group’s advisory board.)
Check this out: last month, young Harvard alumni committed to fossil-fuel divestment dominated the college’s annual election for members on its board of overseers. They were nominated not by the alumni association’s nominating committee but by petition, and they won three of the five seats open this year on the thirty-member board. Did Harvard seize on this show of alumni sentiment to join Oxford, Brown, and Cornell in committing to sell its coal, gas, and oil stocks? It did not. Instead, as the Harvard Crimson reported
, the administration announced new rules to make sure that such petition candidates would always be a small minority of the board.
A new trend among particularly climate-conscious corporations is not just reducing emissions but figuring out ways to become “historically carbon neutral.” The Danish window manufacturer Velux, for instance, has been in business since 1941, and it now plans
to plant enough trees to soak up all the carbon it has ever emitted.
With impeccable timing, Jesse Paris Smith and her collaborators at the Pathway to Paris project released
a joyful new version of Patti Smith’s classic song “People Have the Power” on Friday. Look for cameos!
is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis
, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
Coverage of environmental news and the climate crisis from a leading voice in the movement.
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