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Annals of a Warming Planet
Big Oil’s Bad, Bad Day
Crushing blows to three of the world’s largest oil companies have made it clear that the arguments many have been making for decades have sunk in at the highest levels.
By Bill McKibben
May 26, 2021
Climate activists protest in front of the BlackRock building in New York.Photograph by Erik McGregor / Sipa / Alamy
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In what may be the most cataclysmic day so far for the traditional fossil-fuel industry, a remarkable set of shareholder votes and court rulings have scrambled the future of three of the world’s largest oil companies. On Wednesday, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to dramatically cut its emissions over the next decade—a mandate it can likely only meet by dramatically changing its business model. A few hours later, sixty-one per cent of shareholders at Chevron voted, over management objections, to demand that the company cut so-called Scope 3 emissions, which include emissions caused by its customers burning its products. Oil companies are willing to address the emissions that come from their operations, but, as Reuters pointed out, the support for the cuts “shows growing investor frustration with companies, which they believe are not doing enough to tackle climate change.” The most powerful proof of such frustration came shortly afterward, as ExxonMobil officials announced that shareholders had (over the company’s strenuous opposition) elected two dissident candidates to the company’s board, both of whom pledge to push for climate action.
The action at ExxonMobil’s shareholder meeting was fascinating: the company, which regularly used to make the list of most-admired companies, had been pulling out all stops to defeat the slate of dissident candidates, which was put forward by Engine No. 1, a tiny activist fund based in San Francisco that owns just 0.02 per cent of the company’s stock, but has insisted that Exxon needs a better answer to the question of how to meet the climate challenge. Exxon has simply insisted on doubling down: its current plan actually calls for increasing oil and gas production in Guyana and the Permian Basin this decade, even though the International Energy Agency last week called for an end to new development of fossil fuels. Observers at the meeting described a long adjournment midmeeting, and meandering answers to questions from the floor, perhaps as an effort to buy time to persuade more shareholders to go the company’s way. But the effort failed. Notably, efforts by activists to push big investors appear to have paid off: according to sources, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, backed three of the dissident candidates for the Exxon board.
The decision by the Dutch court, which Shell has already said it expects to appeal, is at least as remarkable. Drawing, in part, on European human-rights laws, it finds that, though Shell has begun to make changes in its business plans, they are not moving fast enough to fall in line with the demands of science, and that it must more than double the pace of its planned emissions cuts. “The court understands that the consequences could be big for Shell,” Jeannette Honée, a spokeswoman for the court, said in a video about the ruling. “But the court believes that the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests." Honée continued, “Severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life. And the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights.”
No one knows quite how the ruling, if it stands, will play out. Shell is based in the Netherlands, but it has operations around the world. The ruling, though, is the firmest official pronouncement yet about what a commitment to climate science requires. The forty-five-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2019 levels that the court ordered is very close to what, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) said would be required to keep us on a pathway that might limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The court gently dismissed Shell’s attempts to evade the science: the company, the judges wrote, believes that “too little attention is paid to adaptation strategies, such as air conditioning, which may contribute to reducing risks associated with hot spells, and to water and coastal management to counter the sea level rise caused by global warming. These adaptation strategies reveal that measures can be taken to combat the consequences of climate change, which may in result reduce the risks. However, these strategies do not alter the fact that climate change due to CO2 emissions has serious and irreversible consequences.”
Instead, it’s clear that the arguments that many have been making for a decade have sunk in at the highest levels: there is no actual way to evade the inexorable mathematics of climate change. If you want to keep the temperature low enough that civilization will survive, you have to keep coal and oil and gas in the ground. That sounded radical a decade ago. Now it sounds like the law.
Passing the Mic
The mayors of Miami-Dade County, Florida; Athens, Greece; and Freetown, Sierra Leone, with funding from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, have each committed to appointing chief heat officers in their cities and establishing Heat Health Task Forces to dedicate resources to manage mounting heat risks that climate change is producing. Jane Gilbert, who has lived in Miami for a quarter century and served as the director of the city’s resilience programs, has taken on a new role there as the city’s chief heat officer. (Our interview has been edited.)
A reason that Americans like coming to Miami is that it’s hot, but is there too much of a good thing? Does it feel different than it did when you first moved here, twenty-six years ago?
People love visiting Miami for our beaches, art, culture, and night life, and for our Miami Heat (pun intended). However, extreme heat can be quite dangerous, especially for outdoor workers, pedestrians, seniors, and people who can’t afford the increasing costs of A.C. The combination of temperature and humidity during Miami summers results in many days where our heat index reaches dangerous levels. I’ve definitely felt the difference since I moved here, and there’s data to back this up. Research shows that Miami experiences twenty-seven more days that reach at least ninety degrees Fahrenheit in a year than it did in 1995. We’re also expected to have a dramatic increase in the number of days with a heat index of a hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit or higher, over the next thirty years. Miami’s residents and visitors expect it to be warm, but, as temperatures rise, they need to know about the heat-health dangers, and the city needs to be able to protect them. We don’t have all of the resources or technical expertise to do it ourselves. So, when we were approached by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, the group that leads the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, about championing heat action, Miami-Dade County’s mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, jumped at the idea to bring in other global mayors to help brand #HeatSeason (like hurricane season). Together, we will share and replicate the best ways to protect people and their jobs from heat.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
 

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How does excess heat interact with other climate problems the city faces—rising sea levels, vulnerability to hurricanes, and so on?
The biggest risk to human lives is having a hurricane followed by a heat wave. Miami has always been vulnerable to hurricanes, but climate change seems to be increasing the intensity of those storms. Hurricanes most often occur in our late summer months, and often result in major and extended power outages. After Hurricane Irma, in 2017, twelve people died of heat-related causes in a nursing home in Broward County, just north of us. Since then, all nursing homes are required to have backup power with the capacity to keep a space cool for at least ninety-six hours in the event of a power outage. Now we need to make sure other vulnerable populations have access to a place to cool off after a storm. Moreover, climate-change impacts, and especially heat risks, are deeply intertwined with social and economic inequalities. Identifying and adopting heat-risk reduction policies and solutions must be informed by the community as well as the science.
Are there some easy first steps to cool a city down a little? What can you do with pavement? How do you make shade?
Plant trees! Tree-shaded surfaces can be as much as thirty-five or forty degrees cooler than surfaces in open sun. Trees can also reduce utility costs, absorb stormwater, and remove pollution and carbon from the atmosphere. We’ve set an ambitious goal of reaching a thirty-per-cent tree canopy countywide by 2030, and prioritizing those neighborhoods with the least shade. Traditional pavements absorb lots of sunlight and can significantly heat up our urban areas. The City of Miami has required cool roofs and pavements in its zoning code for ten years. Miami Beach is now testing some new cool pavements. The evidence that such interventions work exists, but there is much education to be done to make sure the money we spend on rebuilding infrastructure, especially after covid-19, is heat-risk-informed.
Climate School
Here’s a part of the energy story that’s going to keep developing: Michael Klare, the emeritus professor of peace and security studies based at Hampshire College, argues at the Web site TomDispatch that, if we’re not careful, the scramble for the cobalt, lithium, and rare-earth minerals necessary for storage batteries and wind turbines could turn into geopolitical combat not unlike the long battles over oil. He points out that China is a major producer and processor: “In truth, there’s little choice but for Washington and Beijing to collaborate with each other and so many other countries in accelerating the green energy transition,” he writes. Meanwhile, the Financial Times has been tracking claims that China has been using forced labor to produce solar panels: their latest reporting follows a Potemkinish tour of a Chinese plant. And last week, John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said that the Biden Administration is considering sanctions on Chinese solar panels. As I pointed out in April, the balancing act between quickly weaning the world off fossil fuels—whose emissions, even without climate change, accounted for a fifth of the world’s deaths in 2018—and safeguarding human rights is exquisitely hard.
It’s encouraging to see the case against burning trees for electricity spreading widely, even among Tory politicians in Great Britain, which has one of the world’s largest biomass plants. John Randall, a former M.P. and adviser to former Prime Minister Theresa May, argues on the ConservativeHome Web site that biomass-burning will create a “crushing carbon debt.”
I’ve written before about Chevron’s prosecution of Steven Donziger, a human-rights lawyer who represented indigenous peoples in the Amazon whose land was wrecked by oil spills. The story is so Kafkaesque that “The Daily Show” has done as good a job of capturing it as anyone else who’s tried.
Zombie wildfires in the northern boreal forest—blazes that can burn in peat soils even through snowy winters—are getting more attention. A new study finds that, in some years, such fires can account for forty per cent of the burned area in the boreal forest.
An important essay from the forest ecologist Charles Canham examines whether “forest carbon offsets” are actually enhancing carbon-sequestration rates, and concludes that they probably are not. It’s not that paying people to leave their forests intact is a bad idea: forests do trap carbon, and perform many other vital ecosystem services. But Canham finds that, in many cases, the added benefits of offset deals are minimal, with the bulk of credits going toward offsets that would’ve occurred even in the absence of a deal. And the companies buying these offsets go on to emit lots more carbon as a result.
The University of California system has divested from fossil-fuel stocks, but campaigners are pointing out that it still burns lots of natural gas on its campuses; they’re calling on it to quickly electrify the system. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan, which committed to divesting earlier this year, is moving quickly to roll out geothermal power, electric-bus fleets, and the like. “Given our location in the Midwest and proximity to the heart of American industry,” Mark Schlissel, the university president, said, “combined with our scale and complexity, I believe that this new set of commitments are among the boldest in higher education.” Matthew Sehrsweeney, an organizer with the Climate Action Movement, reports in The Nation that campus activists are pushing for more “holistic” action, focussed on helping local communities with housing and other needs. “Now is not a moment for partial measures; it is a moment for radical transformation,” he writes.
Bird numbers are in free fall in much of the world, in part because of a changing climate. One nice quick fix: British builders are increasingly using “bird bricks,” which have holes just the right size for a nesting cavity for migrating birds. With a much larger view, the veteran New Yorker writer Tony Hiss has published a remarkably optimistic book about the chance for “Rescuing the Planet,” by conserving half its land. As the great biologist E. O. Wilson writes in the foreword, “Tony Hiss has given us as clear a picture of humanity’s impact on the earth’s natural environment as any ever written.”
An interesting (and surprisingly understandable) video from the folks at the N.G.O. UnTax lays out the case for ceasing to tax labor, and relying instead on tax revenues from non-renewable natural resources, such as fossil fuel.
Scoreboard
The megadrought in the American West continues to deepen, and scientists say that nearly half the aridity is due to climate change. “Snow melts faster. There’s more evaporation. It just changes the game in so many different ways,” Newsha Ajami, the director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West initiative, told the M.I.T. Technology Review.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting that there will be between thirteen and twenty named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1st. That would be above average, but blessedly below last year’s record onslaught of thirty storms. Meanwhile, residents of Hilton Head Island, including many members of the Gullah Geechee community, are developing an “amphibious resilience” food pantry, stocking critical supplies that can withstand the season’s hurricanes.
Despite pandemic lockdowns, forty million people worldwide fled their homes last year, the highest number in a decade. As Somini Sengupta reported in the Times, the “vast majority” were displaced by “storms and floods.”
Warming Up
Last Friday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the greatest record of the modern era (and I’m not the only one who thinks so), which contains the most important of ecological anthems. So: Mercy, Mercy Me.
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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