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Annals of a Warming Planet
Finally, Green Infrastructure Spending in an Amount That Starts with a “T”
But is it enough? And how would we know if it were?
By Bill McKibben
April 7, 2021
Among other things, Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan aims to spur the market for electric cars like the Chevrolet Bolt.Photograph by William Widmer / Redux
The U.S. federal government is proposing to spend a sum of money that starts with a “T” on an infrastructure bill, and much of that money (two trillion dollars) is aimed at fighting the climate crisis. That is remarkable, and not just when you consider that we’re only seventy-five days out from an Administration that didn’t believe climate change was real. In my lifetime, we’ve spent sums like that mainly on highly dangerous infrastructure—aircraft carriers, fighter jets, nuclear weapons—and the wars in which they were used. To see a proposal to spend it on solar panels and trains is moving, and also just the slightest bit annoying: Why weren’t we doing this all along? Why weren’t we doing it in the nineteen-eighties, when scientists first told us that we were in a crisis? So it seems a fitting moment to really try to tally up the score: What are we doing as a nation now, is it enough, and how would we know if it were?
One of the best summaries of what’s in the Biden proposal comes from David Roberts in his Volts newsletter: he highlights the “coolest” features, from electrifying the postal-service delivery fleet (and a fifth of the nation’s school buses) to a national climate lab situated at a historically Black college and a major transmission grid for renewables that may follow existing rail rights of way. The energy systems engineer Jesse Jenkins, on Twitter, points out that the bill should spur the electric-car industry—the subsidy for buyers would make the cost difference with gasoline cars “disappear.” Julian Brave NoiseCat salutes provisions of the plan that would send forty per cent of the investments to disadvantaged communities, which is a sharp turn from the way big federal spending bills have worked for most of American history.
The criticism, at least from environmentalists, was of the “Yes and” variety. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that she thought we should be spending not two trillion dollars but ten trillion. Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, which has done as much as any organization to get us to this moment, pointed out that the bill incorporates much of what the Green New Deal advocates, including ten billion for a Civilian Climate Corps to put people to work building out the new energy infrastructure. But “we’re just orders of magnitude lower than where we need to be,” she said. “And I think that that fight over the scale and scope of what needs to happen in terms of employment and the creation of jobs, in terms of the scale of investment and the urgency, is going to be a terrain of struggle as this plan gets debated and discussed in Congress.” She’s surely right about that, and I fear there’s likely to be as much pressure to reduce the spending as to increase it.
The question of whether it’s “enough” is, of course, the right one—and the answer is no. Summer sea-ice coverage in the Arctic has declined by fifty per cent since the nineteen-eighties, and there were a record thirty named tropical storms last year, with one of them, off the New England coast, nudging up against smoke coming from the wildfires on the other side of the country, in California. We should be investing every penny we can in green projects, and even then we would still face an ongoing rise in temperature. That’s why movements need to keep pushing hard to build support for climate action.
But another test of whether this spending is sufficient will come in the next couple of months as we watch for decisions from Washington on big projects such as the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline, which stretches across Minnesota. One would hope that a two-trillion-dollar jobs program—with all kinds of promises about union contracts—would buy enough good will with organized labor for Biden to get away with killing these projects. Politicians like building things more than they like shutting things down, but dealing with the climate crisis requires doing both, and if this generous new proposal gives Biden the freedom to act aggressively, then we’d get a double return on the investment.
The Administration faces similar tensions on other fronts. John Kerry, the global climate czar, has been working Wall Street in recent weeks, trying to get the financial giants on board before the global climate summit that the Administration has called for April 22nd. The banks are happy to make proclamations about their net-zero plans for 2050, and they’re happy to pledge lots of lending into the suddenly trending renewables sector, but they’re not happy about stopping their lending to the fossil-fuel industry. Like the building trades, they’d be most thrilled about making money off both the old and the new. And, of course, that would be fine, except for physics.
There’s a lot of this ambivalence going around. (Reuters reported last week that a draft statement from the World Bank commits to “making financing decisions in line with efforts to limit global warming” but not to stopping lending for fossil-fuel projects.) That’s why, late last month, more than a hundred organizations sent Kerry a letter arguing that “no amount of new green finance commitments can credibly undo the damage that their fossil fuel financing is doing to the climate, to U.S. climate leadership, and to our chances of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.” (Full disclosure—the letter opens by citing an essay that I wrote for this magazine.) It would be smart of both the Administration and the banks to pay heed. If not, Robinson Meyer points out in The Atlantic, as the Administration’s commitment to dramatically cut carbon emissions by 2030 starts to become a reality, there will be a “fire sale” of fossil-fuel assets that could do real damage to the economy. It would be much better to prick this carbon-and-finance bubble now.
This is what the climate fight is going to look like for the foreseeable future: not a fight over whether we should be doing something but a tussle over how much we should do. And the cheapest parts of the fight—monetarily, if not politically—involve shutting down the dangerous things that the fossil-fuel industry does. We’re in a much better place politically than we were a few months ago, but in February we passed a scary landmark​—there’s now fifty per cent more CO2 in the air than there was when the Industrial Revolution began. In the end, measuring carbon in the atmosphere and the temperature rise it causes is how we’re going to actually keep score.
Passing the Mic
Morgan Whitten is a Harvard senior from Stuttgart, Germany, and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. Students have been campaigning for Harvard to sell its fossil-fuel shares for almost a decade (long enough that one of the original organizers, Chloe Maxmin, has graduated, been elected to the Maine House of Representatives, and then to the Maine State Senate). But, confined by covid to a virtual campus, organizers have expanded their campaign beyond marches and sit-ins to legal strategies. They initiated a complaint filed with the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, to try to force Harvard to divest, according to its responsibilities under state law as a nonprofit educational institution.
Harvard students, faculty, and alumni have tried many strategies to get Harvard to join Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California system, and others in committing to divesting. How did activists hit on this legal strategy?
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For years, we’ve rallied, marched, mounted art installations, and even disrupted a football game to get the administration and the community’s attention. Last March, our campaign had to pivot to digital operations. Two things we can definitely do remotely are research and write. So we teamed up with attorneys at the Climate Defense Project to draft this complaint, which is part of a growing strategy to target fossil-fuel companies legally and hold their enablers accountable. If the complaint is successful, it could set a precedent that would force powerful investors nationwide to clean up their act on climate. We’ve always said that Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels are immoral—now we’re arguing that they’re illegal, too.
What’s the basic legal argument, and who will be making the case?
We filed the complaint with more than seventy signatories, including students, faculty, alumni, community members, climate scientists, elected officials, investors, philanthropists, and civic organizations. We argue that Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels violate the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act. Harvard is required to uphold its charitable purpose, invest in the Harvard community, and manage its endowment prudently. Investing in fossil fuels is at odds with those obligations. First, the university’s mission is to educate young people and inspire them “to strive towards a more just, fair, and promising world.” But the fossil-fuel industry’s business model is based on environmental destruction and injustice. Second, Harvard’s support for the fossil-fuels industry threatens Harvard’s own campus and puts the futures of its own students (and everyone else) at risk. And, finally, given the declines of the oil, gas, and coal sectors, investing in fossil-fuel stocks is no longer even financially wise. We hope the complaint will bring these violations to the attorney general’s attention and persuade her to step in to protect the interests of the people of Massachusetts.
Court battles can stretch on for many years, and time is not an ally in the climate fight. What other plans do activists have?
We will continue to pressure Harvard to divest its nearly forty-two-billion-dollar endowment from the fossil-fuel industry and reinvest it in just and sustainable funds. For years, Harvard has remained silent on the percentage of its endowment invested in fossil fuels, but, this February, it disclosed a number (about eight hundred and forty million dollars). We will continue to try to meet with university administrators and do whatever it takes to get Harvard to divest from planetary destruction and reinvest in a just and stable future.
Climate School
Agricultural productivity has been growing for decades, but a new study in Nature suggests that human-induced climate change is hindering that progress. “It is equivalent to pressing the pause button on productivity growth back in 2013 and experiencing no improvements since then,” Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, the lead author of the study, said.
An interesting proposal from the local advocacy group Carbon Free Palo Alto: they’re pitching a plan for “beneficial electrification” that would incentivize utilities to track down their customers’ old fossil-fuelled appliances (think gas-powered water heaters or cooktops) and offer to guide those customers through the steps required to replace them with ultra-efficient electric models. The utility would use “its access to low-cost, long-term capital to finance installations” and then recover its “costs from customers during the lifetime of the new device.”
Anyone trying to understand the emerging field of regenerative agriculture needs to know the work of one of its pioneers, the Kansas agronomist Wes Jackson. A new biography tells his story, and he tells some tales of his own in a memoir with the memorable title “Hogs Are Up.”
In case you’re worried that Joe Biden might solve climate change, leaving you nothing big to worry about, the newly formed Existential Risk Observatory, a Web site that publishes research about the greatest risks to our species, is tracking other major threats: its candidate for most likely to extinguish the human race is “Future artificial intelligence (AI) with goals that may be different from ours.”
The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Amazon acted illegally when it fired two employees last year for, among other things, pushing the company to do more about climate change.
Scoreboard
I wrote a few weeks ago about the dangers of a climate hack that, in an effort to ameliorate warming, would inject sunlight-reflecting substances into the atmosphere. Now Sweden’s space agency has denied permission for a Harvard group to test a flight platform that could potentially enable such geoengineering. Opposition from the Sami people, who live in the area where the test was scheduled, played a significant role.
Fossil-fuel companies took billions of dollars of covid tax relief, while laying off tens of thousands of workers. The biggest beneficiary was Marathon Petroleum, whose spokesperson explained that “these difficult decisions were part of a broader, comprehensive effort, which also included implementing strict capital discipline and overall expense management to lower our cost structure, to improve the company’s resiliency, and re-position it for long-term success.” In the short term, the company’s C.E.O. was reportedly paid more than fifteen million dollars last year.
Baseball season is under way (with new data making clear how much baseball weather has warmed over the past fifty years), and shareholder season is not far behind. Last week, activists published a list of the proxy votes that they want the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, to cast during annual meetings. At Exxon, for instance, it is urged to “vote against directors Chairman/CEO Darren Woods and Lead Independent Director Kenneth C. Frazier for failing to implement plans consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5ºC.”
Australians whose rooftop solar panels produce more power than they can use can now trade the excess juice for beer.
When European cities added lots more bike lanes during the pandemic, lots more people rode bikes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its new global measurements of methane abundance in the atmosphere, and it’s not good news. Methane, which, molecule for molecule, traps far more heat than carbon dioxide, is spiking sharply. This year’s increase was the largest on record, which explains why environmentalists are impatient with the idea that natural gas—which consists primarily of methane—is a useful part of the climate solution.
Indigenous youth delivered four hundred thousand petition signatures to the Army Corps of Engineers, demanding that the Biden Administration withdraw support for the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.
Warming Up
Warming up literally this time: here’s the latest installment in a true saga, as Zoë Agasi and Olivier Van Herck travel the world on human power. They’ve cycled through North and South America, hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail through the Adirondacks and New England. Now they’re back in their native Europe, skiing over frozen swamps in Scandinavia. Low carbon, high muscle.
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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