Annals of a Warming Planet
Automakers Start to Figure Out the Climate Future
Bankers, not so much.
By Bill McKibben
June 2, 2021
Last month, Ford released an electric version of its F-150, the most popular motor vehicle of all time.Photograph courtesy Ford
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If you want to meet an expert who understands where the world is heading, may I introduce a bushy-bearded Australian coal miner who features anonymously in a video that was shared by the Sydney Morning Herald last week. He is sitting behind the wheel of a borrowed Tesla when a man in the back seat urges him to “just plant it. Hard as you can.” The man punches the accelerator, is immediately pushed back in his seat, and breaks into a grinning cackle. “Fucking got some go, eh?” the man says. “It’s just instant. Like, fuck,” the driver replies, beaming. (Watch it; you’ll feel happier afterward).
Many of the changes needed to get us on the right climate path are going to meet with resistance, but it’s beginning to look as if getting people to accept electric vehicles may not be one of them. Elon Musk has done pioneering work, but the Tesla has mainly been a niche product—the niche being early adopters of cool things who live along the coasts. (Life in Muskworld is getting a little silly: last month, he started touting a model with ten rocket thrusters that will go from zero to sixty in 1.1 seconds, which sounds like a very bad idea.) Things got very real, though, with last month’s announcement of an electric version of the Ford F-150 pickup, America’s best-selling vehicle every year since the Reagan Administration, and the most popular motor vehicle of all time. Within seven days, the company had reported seventy thousand preorders—and the stock had jumped eight per cent.
Having spent most of my life in rural America, where the F-150 is ubiquitous, I can tell you why this is going to succeed. It’s not the acceleration; it’s the plugs. The electric version will basically be a battery on wheels. The “power frunk” (where the engine used to be) has several outlets, useful for all the power tools you might need if you’re not near another electrical source—if you’re building a home, say—and replacing the noisy, smelly, dangerous gas generators that no one likes. You say that most pickup drivers are not, in fact, home builders? It’s true—most Americans have no need of a pickup at all. But watch any truck commercial and see who it stars. Once blue-collar America endorses the electric approach, suburbia will follow. We need far more than electric cars, of course: buses and bikes, not to mention paths for those bikes, are crucial. But since, right now, public transit accounts for about one per cent of passenger miles travelled, the new pickup paradigm seems critical.
And, in any event, the car companies seem all in. Last week, Ford announced that it was putting down thirty billion dollars in new spending on E.V.s; General Motors has already said that it will be nothing but electric by 2035. By contrast, the banking sector seems determined to have it both ways, trying to make money off both fossil fuels and a renewable future. Late last month, President Biden issued an executive order on climate financial risk that begins by noting that “the failure of financial institutions to appropriately and adequately account for and measure these physical and transition risks threatens the competitiveness of U.S. companies and markets, the life savings and pensions of U.S. workers and families, and the ability of U.S. financial institutions to serve communities.” That failure was visible on many fronts in recent days. Deutsche Bank put forward a detailed plan to cut its carbon emissions by, say, reducing “fuel consumption for its company car fleet in Germany (roughly 5,400 cars) by 30 percent by 2025.”
That sounds fine, but, as the campaigners at the German environmental and human-rights organization Urgewald have pointed out, such proposals “are also an embarrassing testament to the fact that the bank’s understanding of sustainability is stuck in the 90s. The measures are easy to integrate and don’t harm anyone. However, they won’t have a significant impact either”—not, say, like the bank’s plan to coördinate the initial public offering for the oil-and-gas group Wintershall, which plans to boost its fossil-fuel output by thirty per cent by 2023. Closer to home, the world’s biggest fossil-fuel financier, JPMorgan Chase, has announced plans to cut not the amount of carbon that its loans liberate from the ground but, rather, the “carbon intensity” of its portfolio. This would permit it to keep making loans to companies that want to continue producing the same amount of oil and also allow it to vastly increase the amount of natural gas that they pump; gas is somewhat less carbon-intensive than oil, so this increase would slide right through this loophole. At a House Committee on Financial Services hearing last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did her best to cut through this blatant greenwashing, and Jamie Dimon, the Chase C.E.O., seemed to say that the bank was working to cut absolute emissions in its portfolio as well—but for the moment the plans are secret. If you’re wondering how much this matters: a new report shows that the carbon produced by the loans from British bankers alone would make them, if they were a country, the ninth-biggest emitter on earth.
It’s good news of a sort that so much is suddenly up in the air: the fallout from the various court rulings and shareholder votes of late May is less a blueprint for the future than a simple acknowledgment that something must change. Sticks are being stuck in hornets’ nests, and there’s some shrieking from the industry and its friends. (Check out the fifteen G.O.P. state treasurers threatening to withdraw state funds from banks that don’t lend to the oil industry.) But, at least for the moment, the delighted laughter of a miner behind the wheel of an E.V. drowns out the noise.
Passing the Mic
Ana Teresa Fernández, an artist born in Mexico and now based in San Francisco, specializes in what she calls “social sculpture.” I was struck by her recent project “On the Horizon”: clear tubes, erected on the beach and filled with saltwater, which attempt to show passersby what the six feet of sea-level rise that scientists are projecting would actually look like. But all her work is mesmerizing, and I was grateful that she agreed to answer a few questions. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Explain these remarkable tubes that you’ve installed on the beach. Where did the thought come from, and what has the reaction been like?
In 2017, I was invited to speak at the Art + Environment Conference at the Nevada Museum of Art, where I first came across this piece of information: “The sea levels will rise 6 feet in the next 50 years.” This news first pounded on my gut, then kept reverberating within me. I know we hear numbers, but we often don’t feel what that means. This is where I had an idea to try and suspend six feet of water in an attempt to create a visceral experience. First of all, how does one suspend that much water? Secondly, how do you make it rise from the shoreline? And how do you create it in a way that lures people to want to know more? This is how “On the Horizon” was born. Once I had the first design of the ten-inch-wide and six-foot-tall Plexi tube made, I partnered with Doniece Sandoval, the founder of LavaMae, to raise the funds to create an interactive experience by fabricating sixteen of these tubes. “On the Horizon” would be mobile and brought to different shores and endangered coastlines.
While honing in on the design, we tested just one tube on different beaches. Each time, people were immediately drawn to it. When we tested it at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, a group of five little girls swirled, danced, and played around it for an hour, showering us with questions. When we explained this was how high our future coastline would be, their mouths gaped wide. When their parents approached us, the girls were the ones responding to their inquiries about the piece. This is when we knew this piece was intergenerational.
Are there other ways you’ve tried to tackle climate change through your art? What are the challenges of taking something from the future and putting it in the now?
My work deals with migration, especially within bodies and borders, which are outcomes of climate and political changes. I use my own body as a vehicle to explore places and situations which I photograph or film and then turn into large-scale paintings. I want to draw people in—first, visually, and hopefully afterward empathetically. Bodies are being displaced; now bodies of water are also being displaced.
We use literary and metaphoric time machines all the time to learn from the past (one would hope). We create simulators to learn to fly, to train bodies for situations. Aren’t these methods created for us to acquire knowledge, futuristic muscle memory? In psychology, there are practices where you travel back to your younger self and give advice.
Why not speak to future horizons like a person, an aging body? Make endangered coastlines more relatable? This is why I want to have these tubes be bodies of water that people can touch, hug, speak with, walk amid. Create an immersive seascape that we can listen to and connect with.
Climate refugees are headed north now from places such as Honduras. Maybe some of them will see the section of the pre-Trump border wall that you painted blue. What would you like them to see in it?
“Borrando la Frontera” (“Erasing the Border”), done in 2011, was and still is a futuristic piece. I was trying to pull the sky down again as an act of resistance and optimism. I was painting a future, a path forward, and opposition to the borders imposed on us. I hope that migrants that keep journeying to this border can see it and be emboldened to rekindle hope, to find a way beyond the border.
Climate School
James Hansen, the most important scientist of the climate era, has long been advocating a fee on carbon emissions as the most efficient way to reduce them. In a new essay in the Boston Globe, written with his colleague Daniel Galpern, he argues that under federal law Biden has the ability to impose such a fee unilaterally, without waiting for Congress to act.
A powerful (if depressing) report from the Center for Media and Democracy reveals how intertwined parts of big labor and the fossil-fuel industry really are. It shows unions taking the lead in states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, as they passed bills that could send pipeline protesters to jail for many years. The report reads, “The Illinois AFL-CIO, Laborers’ International Union- Midwest Region, IBEW Local 51, Chicago Laborers District Council LMCC, Illinois Pipe Trades Association, and others lobbied alongside the American Petroleum Institute and polluters such as Enbridge, Energy Transfer, TransCanada, and other fossil fuel industry trade groups in favor of the bill.” Meanwhile, a Greenpeace study shows the role that corporations play in getting such bills passed.
Energy analysts (and investors) tend to treat large renewable-energy operations as the key to the future, but, as David Roberts points out, in a typically toothsome essay, rooftop solar and batteries in the basement may play a huge role in backing up the grid and making it cheaper.
Here’s a really beautiful short film, narrated by the British writer Melanie Challenger (whose “How to Be Animal” is a fascinating read), arguing that the pandemic should help us see that we need to understand nature differently going forward.
Every time people study renewable energy in detail (this time, it’s the 350.org Montana chapter), they seem to reach the same conclusion: it would be not just cleaner but cheaper to turn off fossil fuel and turn on the sun and wind.
The reverberations continue from a landmark Dutch court ruling mandating that Shell cut its emissions by forty-five per cent by 2030. The reporter Antonia Juhasz, at Rolling Stone, has one of the best wrap-ups I’ve read, pointing out that the decision relies on international human-rights law, and that the judges seemed to invite others to follow their lead, writing that “it is necessary to reduce the worldwide oil and gas extraction and to facilitate the curtailment of CO2 emissions that cause dangerous climate change; other companies will also have to make a contribution.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine, a former M. & A. lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, has a very useful discussion of what kind of shareholder engagement actually worries oil companies.
The Australian federal court has found that the government has a responsibility to protect young people from the climate crisis, ruling that a “common law duty of care” mandates that officials not act in a way that could harm children in the future. The judge, in his decision, refused, for the moment, to block a coal-mine expansion, on those grounds, but the campaigners who brought the case said that they thought the ruling would force change in the future. The decision included this statement: “Perhaps the most startling of the potential harms demonstrated by the evidence before the court, is that one million of today’s Australian children are expected to suffer at least one heat-stress episode serious enough to require acute care in a hospital.”
Here’s a useful primer on nitrous oxide (N2O, or laughing gas), which is the third most common greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide and methane. It’s increasing rapidly in the atmosphere, and its rise is hard to slow down, because the major source is nitrogen fertilizer. Experiments are under way to figure out how to use such fertilizers more sparingly.
It’s hard to overstate the contributions of the Brazilian urbanist and politician Jaime Lerner, who died last week at eighty-three. They begin but do not end with what we now call Bus Rapid Transit, which can be seen in operation around the world. He was also elected three times the mayor of Curitiba, which I have argued may be the greenest city on the planet, and also one of the most fun to wander around in. “I know it’s the right of people to live where they want,” he told me once. “If you want to live in a condominium of wealthy people, that’s O.K. But you can also offer an option for people who want to live more gregariously.”
Scoreboard
A new World Meteorological Organization report gives a ninety-per-cent chance that a year between now and 2025 will see a new record for global average temperature. (It won’t be 2021; a cooling La Niña current in the Pacific has depressed temperatures from last year’s record mark.) The W.M.O. also thinks that there’s a forty-per-cent chance that, at least for a single year, we’ll soon breach the 1.5-degree mark set in Paris as a goal for limiting the heat.
Here’s a scoreboard from campaigners trying to force BlackRock to vote its shares in climate-friendly ways. By their count, the world’s largest investment manager did the wrong thing in four proxy votes, did the right thing twice, and split the difference at Exxon’s annual meeting, where it backed three of the four dissident candidates for the board, but did not vote against reappointing C.E.O. Darren Woods to the board.
An ingenious new method of using satellites to measure the evaporation and transpiration of water through vegetation yields sobering results: evapotranspiration jumped ten per cent between 2003 and 2019, largely because of higher land temperatures. In other words, the global water cycle is intensifying, leading both to more drought and to more downpour.
Warming Up
Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, and Dave Matthews are among the artists committed to a live-stream concert on June 4th to mark World Environment Day, put on by the indefatigable impresarios at Pathway to Paris. Make sure not to miss the Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal.
Bill McKibben 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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