The Biden Administration’s next few weeks may decide the fate of the remote Yaak Valley, on Montana’s Canadian border.Photograph by John Lambing / Alamy
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The blizzard of federal climate initiatives last week (a blizzard that might help allow actual blizzards to persist into the future) is without precedent. For the first time in the thirty-plus years of our awareness of the climate crisis, Washington roused itself to urgent action; veterans of the cautious Obama Administration—the domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy and the global climate czar John Kerry chief among them—were suddenly going for broke. In fact, only one branch of the Cabinet seemed conspicuous by its muted presence: the Department of Agriculture, which has responsibility for the nation’s farms and for many of its forests—that is, for the natural features that will either speed or slow the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.
The new (and returning) Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has been regarded among activists as one of Joe Biden’s less inspiring Cabinet choices: a confrère of Big Ag. But who knows—the spirit of possibility in D.C. might be contagious in the best sense of the word. We may see how far it’s spreading in the next few weeks, by watching the fate of the remote Yaak Valley, on Montana’s Canadian border. The Forest Service—an arm, somewhat anomalously, of the Agriculture Department—is about to decide on a timber sale in the Yaak area of the Kootenai National Forest. The Black Ram Project, if approved, would consign a vast swath of old-growth forest and grizzly-bear habitat in the Yaak to clear-cutting, and would run roads through one of the wildest places remaining in the lower forty-eight states. As it happens, I’ve had the chance to hike that wilderness: the writer Rick Bass, who lives in the area and has made it his life’s work to try to keep this region ecologically intact, took me over hill and dale years ago, and I can still remember the squelching, buzzing beauty of the place.
By all accounts, the Forest Service is on the brink of approving the Black Ram Project. It’s a holdover from the Trump years, when the ex-President (for whom a forest is the place your golf ball goes when you slice it) mandated huge increases in timber cuts in national forests. He explained them as necessary to reduce the risk of forest fires. But, as many biologists pointed out, if there’s any worth to such plans, it comes from thinning the smallest trees, not chopping down the old-growth ones that timber companies prize—and which are on the block in the Yaak. Indeed, if you’re interested in averting catastrophic global warming (and the fires that it sparks), one of the easiest, cheapest ways to do it is to leave large old trees standing. That’s why Bass has been calling for a “climate refuge” in the Yaak. He says that we need to “protect the great lungs of our country, the northern tier of inland rainforests, which still offer some hope for sequestering carbon in the old spruce and subalpine fir forests, which can hold 80 percent more carbon in the soil than the drier pine forests.”
In a statement, Randi Spivak, the Public Lands Program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is helping fight the proposed clear-cut, described the project as “the last gasp of Trump’s horrifying mismanagement of our national forests and protected wildlife habitat,” adding that “what little old-growth forests remain after decades of clearcutting must be protected. We’ll fight to stop this destruction, and we hope the Biden administration will reverse it.” Like the Line 3 and Dakota Access pipelines, the plan to gut the Yaak would almost certainly not be proposed in today’s political climate. But tomorrow’s actual climate depends on stopping these examples of zombie Trumpism; we’re so close to the climate cataract that we can’t afford to let inertia and interest carry us any farther down the river.
It’s clear that John Kerry has one of the harder jobs on the Biden team, restoring world confidence in America’s willingness to take on the planet’s most difficult challenge—one that we did more than almost any other country to cause. As he labors to get other nations working in harmony, he’ll need as pristine a record as possible back home to underscore his credibility. Cancelling the Black Ram timber sale would make it that much easier to persuade other countries to do the right thing. It would send a deeper message, too. The most important statement that Kerry ever made in his public career came very early. When he was still in his twenties, and a leader of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he said this to a congressional committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” That’s where we are circa 2021 in the climate fight: we’re acknowledging the stupidity of standard ways of doing business. So we should just stop. Right now, before any more damage is done.
Passing the Mic
Much of the most important work of the climate movement is done by local groups and by local chapters of national groups—they’re the ones who know how to work the state houses and city halls to get legislation passed. One of the most impressive operations in the country is the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (ccan), where, for almost two decades, Mike Tidwell, the executive director, has helped make the states surrounding the national capital some of the most progressive in the country on climate and energy issues. One of his newest lieutenants is Kim Jemaine, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and now lobbies the Virginia legislature. On February 13th, like all ccan recruits, she’ll join the organization’s annual Polar Bear Plunge fund-raiser. The plunge is usually into the icy Potomac, but this year it’s going “brrr-tual.” (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
How did you get involved in climate-change work?
I started my career working on election campaigns. Climate change was always part of my candidates’ platforms. After some time in the electoral world, I decided I wanted to effect change on a systemic level, through policy development. I have a daughter with ambitious goals, and I want to insure that children like her have a habitable earth and enough time to live out their dreams. I also think that climate impacts highlight systems of injustice at work. Black and brown people bear the burden of poor air quality, exploitative fossil-fuel projects, and the legacies of systems like redlining, which have placed them at higher risk for the deadly impacts of rising temperatures. We often talk about the intersections of injustice, but I’ve started to see them as layers that encumber certain communities. I care deeply about doing what I can to lift some of those layers of injustice.
We’re used to thinking of climate change as a tough issue in the South, but, in Georgia’s recent U.S. Senate races, voters went for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who both talked a lot about climate change. Do you think it will be an issue in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial election?
Climate change has become an increasingly relevant issue for voters. Like you said, Warnock and Ossoff both campaigned on it, and we saw Biden run multiple climate-focussed ads. I absolutely think it will be a significant issue in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Virginians in Hampton Roads are already facing the impacts of recurrent flooding and rising sea levels. Communities like Montgomery and Giles Counties are fighting off unnecessary pipelines that represent the death throes of the fossil-fuel industry. Previously redlined areas in Richmond are being disproportionately affected by dangerously high summer temperatures. The impacts of climate change are not far off. For many Virginians, they are real and they are current. Folks will be looking to gubernatorial candidates for tangible plans to tackle this issue and secure a livable climate for future generations.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
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Big utility players like Dominion Energy have been a dominant force in Virginia politics. Is that beginning to fade? Describe what the climate-justice movement looks like in your region.
I think Dominion’s influence is fading slowly but surely. Close to fifty state legislators have already sworn off Dominion money, including a number of the gubernatorial candidates. However, certain legislators still gladly accept Dominion contributions and champion its causes. It will be an uphill battle to loosen its grip on Virginia politics. The climate-justice movement in Virginia is, and has been, community-led. Virginians in places like Union Hill and Montgomery County have organized and mobilized to protect their communities and public spaces. They have catalyzed policy to codify and operationalize environmental justice, increase inspection and enforcement of environmental standards for fossil-fuel projects, and protect historically significant spaces for Black and brown communities. While environmental and climate organizations have a hand in policy development and legislative input, the climate-justice victories on the ground have been secured by the people.
Robin Kimmerer is one of the wisest ecologists I know. In this essay for Orion Magazine, she reflects on nature and language, asking why plants and animals are always referred to using the pronoun “it.”
Lloyd Austin, the new Secretary of Defense, came out as a climate hawk in one of his earliest pronouncements last week. “The Department of Defense will also support incorporating climate risk analysis into modeling, simulation, wargaming, analysis, and the next National Defense Strategy,” he said. “And by changing how we approach our own carbon footprint, the Department can also be a platform for positive change, spurring the development of climate-friendly technologies at scale.”
Anand Giridharadas used his newsletter, “The.Ink,” for an interview with Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, who served on the climate task force established by Biden and Bernie Sanders after the 2020 Democratic primaries. “Now we are in a full-blown emergency, and we don’t have the luxury of time or of watering down any kind of plans that we have,” Prakash told Giridharadas. “We will constantly have to push Joe Biden at every step of the way to ensure that he doesn’t just meet these goals, but goes beyond them.”
Writing in Atmos, Whitney Bauck provides one of the deepest accounts I’ve read of how Pope Francis’s remarkable encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” is slowly diffusing out through the vast world of Catholicism, and proving particularly powerful in the Amazon. In the words of Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader in Ecuador, “The changes have been felt since the moment the pope chose the name ‘Francis,’ who within the Catholic faith is a saint who loved all creation as a work of God. [Saint Francis] spoke with nature, understood Brother Wind and Sister Rain, and had this connection to communicate with them just like our Indigenous wise men and women. . . . At that moment, without knowing him, I knew there would be good surprises.”
James Gustave Speth is among the most important environmentalists of our time. A founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, he went on to serve as the chair of Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and the dean of Yale’s famous School of the Environment. He’s now co-edited “The New Systems Reader,” a collection of important visions about how we might rethink our economy. (I first heard him lecture about these ideas in a D.C. jail cell, to a group arrested in the first Keystone XL-pipeline protests; the quiet force of his thoughts cut through the din of that barren place.)
United University Professions, the nation’s largest higher-education union, which represents the faculty and the staff of the State University of New York system, is urging T.I.A.A., the giant asset manager that handles most professorial pensions, to divest from fossil fuel.
Last year, for the first time, renewable energy provided more power to the European Union’s electrical grid than fossil fuel did. Bloomberg reported, “Wind and solar generation increased about 10% compared to 2019. Coal production fell 20%, to about half the level it was five years ago.”
The professional scoreboard keepers at the Washington Post are keeping careful track of how many Trump environmental attacks are being rolled back.
There’s been a big victory in the Netherlands, where a court ruled that a Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell bears responsibility for the oil that spilled from company pipelines across the Niger Delta for decades. Donald Pols, the head of Friends of the Earth in the Netherlands, said, “This is fantastic news for the environment and people living in developing countries,” pointing out that the legal ruling “creates grounds to “take on the multinationals who do them harm.”
Oh, and General Motors has pledged to stop building passenger cars, vans, and S.U.V.s that run on gasoline by 2035.
Here’s the literary voice of the Yaak Valley, Rick Bass, alongside the veteran Montana musician Caroline Keys: words and music from a special place.
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.