Annals of a Warming Planet
Amy Coney Barrett Should Recuse Herself from Big Oil’s Supreme Court Case
January 13, 2021
The Justice’s father, who was an attorney for Shell for decades, could have direct knowledge of how the company managed climate threats.Photograph by Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg / Getty
anuary 19th, the day before Joe Biden’s
Inauguration, is one of those moments when past, present, and future will collide, this time in the halls of the Supreme Court. The Justices will hear a case (BP P.L.C. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore), and the most interesting question is: How many Justices will there be? Because, as new research makes clear, Amy Coney Barrett, the junior member of that august bench, should recuse herself.
The case before the Supreme Court hinges on a narrow procedural question, but the underlying lawsuit is one of almost two dozen brought by cities and states that want the oil companies to compensate them for the damages—the rising seas and the gathering winds—caused by the fossil-fuel industry’s products. They contend, and the record leaves little doubt, that the industry knew for decades that it was triggering dangerous climate change. These were the biggest lies that companies have ever told: if Philip Morris killed us one smoker at a time, BP and ExxonMobil and the rest are taking out the entire planet, as the new record that the world set for billion-dollar “natural” disasters in 2020 makes clear. That list of duplicitous companies includes Shell, which is where Barrett comes in: her father, Michael, was an attorney for Shell for almost three decades. During her Senate-confirmation hearings, Barrett provided a recusal list that she’d used during her years as an appeals-court judge—it included four Shell subsidiaries, but not Shell Offshore, Inc., even though her father represented that Shell entity in court and administrative forums for at least thirteen years. He also worked for the American Petroleum Institute for two decades, chairing its subcommittee on exploration and production law. And those two roles could be crucial to the case before the Supreme Court: as Lee Wasserman, the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which has played a key role in the fight to hold oil companies responsible, points out, Barrett père could be called for a deposition. “Justice Barrett’s father potentially has direct knowledge of and operational involvement in how Shell managed climate threats. He also faces reputational risk from his association with colleagues engaged in decades of corporate deception.”
For instance, in 1988—the year that the nasa scientist James Hansen made the greenhouse effect
a public issue—Royal Dutch Shell produced a confidential internal memo after five years of internal reviews. The memo, which was uncovered in 2018 by the Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers, notes that climate impacts could include “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather.” It observes that changes would impact “the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic and political consequences.” These environmental and socioeconomic changes might be the “greatest in recorded history.” The memo includes this jarring observation: “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.” The document also calculated how much Shell was on the hook for in all this; it concluded that the company could be tied to four per cent of all the carbon dioxide that humans, as of 1984, had spewed into the atmosphere. And Shell’s executives took the warning seriously—among other things, they quickly redesigned a natural-gas platform to raise its height and protect against sea-level rise and intensifying storms. As Wasserman says, “There is almost no chance that a person as senior as Mr. Coney, who worked principally in the ‘offshore OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] exploration and production area,’ would have been unaware of the issue.” (Late Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of environmental groups, including 350.org, where I am the senior adviser emeritus, called
on Justice Barrett to recuse herself.)
Shell, instead of admitting the damage it had caused, joined with other fossil-fuel companies to form the Global Climate Coalition, which ran a huge (and hugely successful) decade-long campaign to confuse the public. There’s no way to take that back now—it’s water under (and, increasingly, over) the bridge. But there can still be justice, in this case for the taxpayers of cities like Baltimore, who, despite not being at fault for the damage wrought by fossil-fuel companies, have to pay for the protection that their homes now require. That justice depends on taking the past seriously, which isn’t easy for any of us. It will be interesting to see how Justice Barrett responds.
Passing the Mic
Robin Broad is a professor at American University; she has served as an international economist in the Treasury Department and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With her husband, John Cavanagh, she helped build the network of international allies that spearheaded the global fight against gold mining in El Salvador, a fight premised on the argument that the mines would wreck the country’s rivers. They chronicle the decade-long battle in their new book, “The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed
.” (Our conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)
This has been called a David and Goliath story. Can you explain in a few words what happened in El Salvador and why it was so dramatic?
In fights against corporate Goliaths like ExxonMobil and Amazon, the Davids almost never win. In El Salvador, brave individuals from poor, remote communities beat the odds. To save their precious rivers, they stood up to powerful mining corporations. And, despite the brutal assassination of four of their comrades, they kept fighting for thirteen years and ultimately prevailed. How did they do it? They won over public opinion by defining their struggle as pro-water rather than anti-mining. Their slogan: “Water Is Life.” With creative audacity, they cultivated unlikely allies, including right-wing ministers and legislators and conservative archbishops. Since their corporate foes were global, they forged their own international alliances. Labor, environmental, and faith activists in the United States, the Philippines, Australia, Canada, and other countries put pressure on governments, corporations, and international institutions in solidarity with the Salvadoran water defenders.
In the end, they defeated a corporate lawsuit in a Washington, D.C., tribunal—and they persuaded their national legislature to make El Salvador the first country in the world to ban mining.
Water defenders have been popping up around the world, Standing Rock being a prime example. Are people learning from one another as these fights multiply?
Now you are asking me to jump ahead to some of the surprises in the book. Trying not to reveal too much, here is more good news: a Philippine governor became a secret weapon in the Salvadoran win. He travelled halfway around the globe to El Salvador to offer his firsthand testimony on the dangers of large-scale mining. He then returned home with tales of the Salvadoran victory, helped spread the understanding that water is life, and joined Philippine water defenders to block the continued operation of a global mining corporation there.
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So just as the Standing Rock Sioux are celebrated around the United States and have shared lessons with indigenous communities from Arizona to Minnesota, El Salvador’s water defenders have been invited by communities—from Haiti and Peru to Canada and Australia—to share the story of their unexpected victories. And movements have learned from each other to push governments to stop or restrict toxic mining in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and elsewhere.
We’ve watched in the past few months as unprecedented hurricanes have slammed into Central America. Do you foresee climate refugees headed north, and how should Americans think about them if they come?
Yes. Even before the devastating hurricanes, years of climate-change-induced drought in Central America shrivelled coffee, bean, and corn crops, creating countless climate refugees. Their ranks have been further fuelled by decades of socially and environmentally destructive economic policies imposed by U.S.-backed governments across the region.
That said, it is crucial to understand that most people we met in rural Central America love their land and their cultures and would prefer to stay home, if they have the opportunity to live safe and dignified lives there. They want to farm the lands they have farmed for generations and fish the rivers they have fished for generations. That is why Salvadorans risked their lives to save their rivers from Big Gold rather than head north.
And that is why, as the Biden Administration makes climate change a top priority, it should simultaneously halt military assistance to the Honduran dictatorship and stop so-called foreign aid that favors energy-intensive mega-projects. Our government should instead offer assistance that supports small farmers and sustainable, local livelihoods.
While we’re on the theme of taking on Philistines, Geoff Dembicki, at the Canadian publication the Tyee, gives the best account
I’ve read of how upstart Brooklyn community groups managed to fight off plans for luxury development and preserve the South Brooklyn waterfront as an industrial space “where people could earn decent salaries building the wind turbines, solar panels and low-carbon technology necessary for a Green New Deal.” Dembicki quotes Elizabeth Yeampierre, one of the heroes of the fight: “We would say it isn’t David and Goliath. It was David and five Goliaths.”
In a fascinating article
in Harvard’s Kennedy School Review
, Alan Loeb (who worked on lead pollution as a senior attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency) argues that, because carbon emissions, which linger for a century or more, are as much a legacy problem as a problem of current emissions, it might make sense to look at the Superfund law for cleaning up toxic-waste dumps as a legislative precedent.
In a rich chunk of historical analysis, the Times uncovers
the career of a C.I.A. scientist, Linda Zall, who figured out how to leverage the data obtained by spy satellites to help researchers understand how the climate was changing.
Max Roser, the founder of the Web site Our World in Data, has a compelling essay showing just how far and how fast the price of renewable energy has fallen. The good news is that the more we push its development, the faster that price will keep falling. “Renewables follow steep learning curves and fossil fuels do not,” he writes. “A key reason is that renewables do not have fuel costs and comparatively small operating and maintenance costs, which means that the L.C.O.E. [lifecycle cost of energy] of renewable energy scales with the cost of their technologies. And the key technologies of renewable energy systems—solar, wind, and batteries—themselves follow a learning curve: each doubling of their installed capacity leads to the same decline of costs.”
At roughly the same hour that Trump was urging his followers
to intimidate the Congress, his bureaucrats were scrambling
to plunder the country’s largest wildlife refuge before Joe Biden can shut down the process. The only problem: almost no companies showed up to bid for leases, and almost all of the acreage ended up being leased by the state of Alaska. “Today’s lease sale was the logical conclusion to this completely flawed effort: a massive failure,” Jenny Rowland-Shea, a senior policy analyst for public lands at the Center for American Progress, told
the Houston Chronicle
. “The Trump administration has managed to rip off taxpayers, ignore the rights and voices of the Gwich’in and threaten polar bears and caribou, all to hand the coastal plain over to a couple of wildcatters and a state-owned corporation with no ability to drill.”
Even in hydrocarbon hotbeds like Houston, lots of college students and recent grads are beginning to wonder
if majoring in petroleum engineering or geology is setting them up for a lifelong career.
Some professional climate deniers are also coup apologists, as a DeSmog tally
makes clear. Indeed, Marc Morano, writing on Climate Depot, managed to figure out how to link to the covid-19 fight, as well, urging “patriots” to next “storm state Capitols and the CDC” to end any virus-related lockdowns.
The organizers of the American Birkebeiner—the country’s greatest cross-country ski race, which in non-
covid years draws ten thousand participants or more to the woods of Wisconsin—decided to send back a sponsorship check from the pipeline-building Enbridge Corporation, which is currently engaged in trying to force the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline through neighboring Minnesota. Meanwhile, the veteran campaigner Winona LaDuke offers an update
on the Line 3 fight, which turns on persuading Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz, to stand up to Canadian oil barons.
A new report from the research network portfolio.earth finds that the world’s largest banks are pouring money into the plastics industry, without setting any requirement to prevent the companies involved from polluting land and sea. As with fossil fuels, the biggest money—measured in hundreds of billions of dollars—is coming from Citigroup, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase.
Report from the battle of the generations: a new study finds that eighty per cent of baby boomers report that they turn off lights and electronics when not in use, compared with sixty-four per cent of millennials. However, millennials are more likely to have made bigger investments in energy reduction and sustainability: more than a third (thirty-six per cent) have purchased a smart thermostat, and a quarter have installed solar panels or a renewable-energy source in their homes.
Diesel trucks make up less than three per cent of Shanghai’s vehicle fleet but produce forty-six per cent of the particulates that help choke the city. So the municipal government is going to ban them
The bluegrass singer Claire Lynch and the blues vocalist Lea Gilmore duet in this new version
of “America the Beautiful,” updated for the moment by Jesse Palidofsky.
O beautiful, O Mother Earth
All nestle at your breast
Just as we sing with love and pride
So all nations are blessed
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.
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