Annals of a Warming Planet
Is There Anything Funny About the Climate Crisis?
March 10, 2021
Aminah Imani is one of the four comedians in “Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave,” a standup special inspired by the environmental-justice situation in Norfolk, Virginia.Photograph courtesy Hip Hop Caucus
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orfolk, Virginia, is one of seven cities in the region known as Hampton Roads, which is among the metropolitan areas most vulnerable to coastal flooding in the world. Like New Orleans, Norfolk sits extraordinarily low to the sea—just seven feet above it in some places—and Hampton Roads, where three big rivers converge and the Chesapeake Bay flows into the Atlantic, floods regularly. When a big storm hits, watch out. Also, Norfolk suffers from much the same patterns of racial inequity that made Hurricane Katrina such a disaster for the Crescent City. So you might be excused for predicting that a standup-comedy show about the impact of global warming on Norfolk’s African-American neighborhoods would bomb.
But no. As the theologian James Cone once insisted, “Anger and humor are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to oppression, and humor prevents them from being consumed by their fury.” A new standup-comedy special, “Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave
,” which premières next week at the (virtual) D.C. Environmental Film Festival, is an attempt to prove Cone’s point. Born of a collaboration between the Hip Hop Caucus (see my interview below with the executive producer, Antonique Smith) and American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact (C.M.S.I.), it features four standup comics from across the country: Clark Jones, Aminah Imani, Mamoudou N’Diaye, and Kristen Sivills. They studied the environmental-justice situation in Norfolk with local experts, wrote some jokes, then staged a show for the community and its elected leaders at the historic Attucks Theatre. (The theatre is named for Crispus Attucks, a man of African-American and Native American descent who was one of the first patriots to die in the Boston Massacre, two hundred and fifty-one years ago last week.) A report, produced jointly with C.M.S.I., documents the whole process. Charles (Batman) Brown, the Caucus’s Virginia leadership-committee coördinator, explained the logic: “The social-justice and community activists are really good at organizing in their sphere,” while entertainers can spread information easily via social media. “And, in the political world, you have to be invited into that world. It’s always best, I think, when those three worlds can come together and partner up. I think the problem is that doesn’t happen as much as it should.” Happily, the Norfolk experiment seems widely replicable—there are lots of comedians, and lots that need poking fun at.
Including, it must be said, the C.E.O.s of various oil companies and banks, who, with the advent of the Biden Administration, are lining up to make ever more earnest-sounding climate commitments. Within the past few days, Goldman Sachs
joined the recent convert Citi
in following Bank of America and Morgan Stanley in a promise to achieve “net-zero emissions” by 2050 with its financing, and Wells Fargo did the same
, on Monday. (Chase, the biggest fossil-fuel lender of all, has promised to follow Paris guidelines.) It’s good to see the banks acknowledging the new Zeitgeist—that climate change is something we need to show we care deeply about—and good to see them ruling out some of the most egregious potential clients, but it’s hard to escape the idea that, in too many cases, the pledges are mostly a kind of performance. For one thing, no one is specifying how the emissions caused by the loans will be measured. It’s tricky math, at best—even the arguably most important leader in reforming climate finance, the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, had to walk back his recent claim that the six-hundred-billion-dollar portfolio of the asset manager Brookfield, where he is a vice-chair, was carbon-neutral because it was investing enough in renewable energy to offset its holdings in the fossil-fuel industry.
Writing in the Guardian
, the environmental campaigners Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft dismissed moves by various banks, because many banks and oil companies are using vague pledges as cover to increase their emissions in the next few years. Enbridge Corporation has announced plans to be a net-zero emitter, but that hasn’t stopped it from continuing construction on the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline in Minnesota—and, indeed, last week a consortium of banks announced that they would give the company an eight-hundred-million-dollar “sustainability loan,” angering Indigenous leaders, who called
it classic greenwashing. Royal Dutch Shell said
that it would go to net zero, too, but also announced plans to ramp up production of natural gas, while employing “nature-based offsets”—which translates to planting trees. Even ExxonMobil said
last week that it was “supportive” of zero-emissions goals. American University is tracking
the pledges from dozens of companies intent on following this route. But, as Bloomberg’s Kate Mackenzie points out, “the total volume of offsets they rely on will quickly exceed the ability of the planet to provide them”—there is only so much ground for planting trees.
These pledges seem to be a way of saying, to quote St. Augustine, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” Augustine feared Hell; if we’ve moved past that, we should at least worry about a future with a similar temperature. I don’t think that these banks and oil companies can keep this act up for five years, much less thirty, because the fires and floods that roll across the planet will make them not the butt of jokes but the focus of rage. (New data this week show that going beyond a 1.5-degree-Celsius global temperature increase may make much of the tropics uninhabitable.) The way to avoid that is to do, right now, what needs to be done: if you’re a bank, stop messing with complicated dodges about carbon offsets and cease lending to oil companies. No kidding.
Passing the Mic
Antonique Smith is, among other things, the singing voice of the climate movement. Since she covered
Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” for the Hip Hop Caucus’s “Home” album, in 2014, she has performed at hundreds of rallies and events, and is an original host of the weekly climate podcast
“Think 100%: The Coolest Show.” She has also earned Grammy nominations and plays Aretha Franklin’s young mother in the new “Genius” miniseries
from National Geographic. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
Can you describe Norfolk—what its divisions are like and how they set the background for this film? Did people there care about the climate crisis, and did that change as the filming progressed?
While the entire region, including the world’s largest Navy base, is threatened by rising sea levels, the threat is not the same for every community. Black people and communities throughout the region are at greater risk for flooding, disaster, and toxic pollution. The city of Norfolk is about half Black, half white, but the St. Paul’s district, home to a predominantly Black public-housing community, is representative of the economic disparity that has fallen squarely on racial lines; racist urban policies and climate gentrification posed as redevelopment are hitting the Black community the hardest.
Getting to create “Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave” has been such a powerful experience. Community leaders, organizations, and activists are working day in and day out on a bunch of issues. Flooding, from sea-level rise brought on by climate change, is one of them. What we’ve been able to do is to bring together local leaders and talk about the climate crisis in terms of racial justice, housing, transportation, and food security. It’s all about communicating and working on the climate crisis in ways relevant to people’s lives.
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People might instinctively say, “There’s nothing funny about global warming.” But we make comedy about many of the most painful things in our lives. What can comedians bring to this fight?
Certainly, there’s nothing funny about suffering, dying, and possible extinction, but I’m so grateful for comedians and for comedy in itself. What would life be like without joy and laughter? Science gives us the facts, but most people aren’t inspired, moved, or touched on an emotional level by science. Infuse that same information with comedy, and you have a magic combination of enjoyment and fun, while learning and being inspired to action. Another magical component of comedy is that it feels very personal and relevant. The best comedians tell stories in a way that makes you feel like they’re telling your story. You identify with it even if it hasn’t actually happened to you. Unfortunately, most people of color can identify with the issues surrounding climate and environmental injustices.
Though you’re very much of the moment, you’ve spent a lot of time in an earlier era, too: singing Marvin Gaye, helping portray the story of Aretha Franklin and the civil-rights movement. What lessons should we take from those days, and what new lessons have we learned since?
If you listen to the lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” the things he’s saying are not only still happening—they’re worse. “Poison is the wind that blows,” “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury,” et cetera. He wrote that more than forty years ago! I believe the lessons we can learn from the past is that the fight isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. People sacrificed their lives and suffered greatly for the progress that was made so that we can have the rightful freedom and liberties that we sometimes take for granted today. The sad lesson we have learned since that era is that we still have so far to go. Until the communities of people of color are no longer considered the sacrifice zones and a dumping ground for billion-dollar polluters; until we all have clean air, clean water, and access to fresh, healthy food; until the systems that allow for Black people to be murdered by police and the systems designed to keep people of color from gaining wealth are dismantled; until white supremacy is destroyed and all Black lives truly matter, then we have to keep on fighting.
The former Times
reporter Chris Hedges delivers a useful rant
about the way that “ruling elites” continually “mollify” public opinion with vague promises.
The city of Miami released a major report detailing its plans for dealing with sea-level rise, replete with beautiful pictures of buildings on stilts, which “allow storm surge to pass beneath the building without damaging it. This approach permits occasional flooding on roads and yards while also lowering the total cost to adapt to sea level rise as it relies on more passive natural infrastructure.” Experts are somewhat skeptical that the plans can work; the scariest possibilities were raised by new reports of a slowdown in the Gulf Stream that could—thanks to the complicated circulation patterns of seawater—speed Atlantic sea-level rise along the East Coast. Were there a Pulitzer for graphics, the Times
climate team would deserve one for its depiction
of that flagging current.
County officials in North Dakota have passed rules that block a power company from using a transmission line from a coal-fired plant—which was slated to close for economic reasons—for wind energy. According to a report
on “All Things Considered,” farmers who could be leasing their acreage for wind turbines are not pleased. “I cussed that frickin’ wind for fifty years,” a retired farmer, Gary Scheid, told the Mercer County commissioners at a meeting last July
. “This is an opportunity to maybe cash in a little bit on that wind.”
Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, has a must-read essay
cogently laying out the overlapping stages of technological progress required to meet climate goals. He sees four waves: for the first two, over the next ten or fifteen years, we need “quick wins” on problems such as methane leaks and the rapid buildout of renewable energy. The third involves “growing natural sinks” to absorb emissions, perhaps through regenerative farming practices. The fourth, which requires research dollars now, is new technologies for making such things as carbon-free cement, steel, plastic, and jet fuel—and for removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Following up on last week’s column about renewable-energy
nimbyism, Kumar Barve, the chair of the Maryland House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee, blasts
the Montgomery County Council for declaring a climate emergency and then making it all but impossible to use rural land for solar farms.
The Canadian government corporation Trans Mountain is asking
a regulator for permission to hide the names of the companies insuring the expansion of its tar-sands pipeline project, for fear that activists will pressure those firms to stop collaborating, on human-rights and environmental grounds.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil announced
that it is writing off nearly its entire investment in those tar sands, and more than thirty per cent of its reserves. As DeSmogBlog reported, “along with wiping out the value of its tar sands holdings, Exxon also noted that it wrote off ‘approximately 1.5 billion oil-equivalent barrels, mainly related to unconventional drilling in the United States.’ Unconventional drilling refers to the fracking business, which has been a financial disaster
for many of those involved.”
Annals of voter suppression: thanks to great reporting from HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman, we know that, as one city after another joined the push for stronger energy-efficiency standards from the International Code Council (which, despite its name, mostly sets policy for the U.S. and parts of the Caribbean and Latin America), the home builders’ lobby pushed back, trying to prevent local governments from voting on the rules. Now, pressured by groups such as the American Gas Association, the council may end voting on building codes altogether.
There’s a big win
for the climate in the Netherlands, where the government has ended huge subsidies for biomass, including imports from the U.S. Essentially, it stopped underwriting the cost of cutting down forests (many of them in the southeastern U.S.) and burning them for electricity. Danna Smith, of the Dogwood Alliance, which played a key role in that fight, explains
on CNN why leaving trees standing makes climate-math sense.
Activists in South Texas are doing their best
to keep alive what may be the region’s oldest tree. Monty, a bald cypress that has stood for nine hundred years, is dealing with both drought and the incursion of Trump’s border wall.
Rutgers commits to divesting
from fossil fuels.
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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