Annals of a Warming Planet
On Climate Change, We’ve Run Out of Presidential Terms to Waste
August 26, 2020
If there’s going to be effective American action against rising temperatures that contribute to natural disasters, it’s going to have to come from Joe Biden.Photograph by Philip Pacheco / Bloomberg / Getty
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he working definition of the ongoing brain seizure that is 2020 is either that Coloradans are being told by state authorities to install
smoke-resistant “safe rooms” in their houses, or that Californians now must weigh what kind of mask to wear. An N95 mask helps to filter out harmful particulates from the wildfire smoke that is overwhelming the Golden State, but many come with an exhalation valve to keep the wearer from overheating—and that valve can spread the coronavirus
. Luckily, according
to the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, “There’s a pretty simple fix: you can wear a cloth or surgical mask over the N95.”
This is one of those terrifying moments in the early history of the global-warming era. As of this writing, Hurricane Laura is headed for the coasts of Texas and Louisiana as a monster storm; meanwhile, the West has been erupting in flames. In California, a heat wave
that had produced record-high temperatures ran into a dry storm that, within a couple of days, produced a tenth of the state’s average annual lightning discharges. (Increase the planet’s temperature just a degree Celsius, by the way, and you increase
lightning activity by about twelve per cent.) Authorities told all forty million people in California to be prepared to evacuate—indeed, they told them to park their cars facing out of the driveway, in case they had to leave in seconds. But the pandemic has made evacuation more complicated, because heading to a shelter might carry its own dangers, and it has left California’s firefighting force depleted, because the state relies on prison inmates, a group that has been hit especially hard by
covid-19, to fill out its ranks. And that’s just California. The flooding crisis in China intensified again last week, as record
amounts of water poured into the reservoir behind Three Gorges Dam.
Here’s what this means: if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take over the White House, in January, they’re going to be dealing with an immediate and overwhelming climate crisis, not just the prospective dilemma that other Administrations have faced. It’s not coming; it’s here. The luxury of moving slowly, the margin for zigging and zagging
to accommodate various interests, has disappeared. So, if the Democrats win, they will have to address the pandemic and the resulting economic dislocation, and tackle the climate mess all at the same time. Any climate plan must be, in some way or another, the
solution to the current widespread loss of jobs.
That will not be easy, because, although the interests that keep us locked into the use of fossil-fuels are weakening, they remain strong. A remarkable new investigation by the Guardiandocumented how the gas industry—utilities, drillers, and unions—is spending huge sums to insure that cities don’t start encouraging homeowners to use electricity. (Part of the story documents the industry’s successful campaign to overwhelm efforts by activists in Seattle who are affiliated with 350.org, which I helped found.) But the effort to keep fossil-fuel executives out of the White House is growing: last week, even the veteran centrist John Podesta, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign, was joining hands with the Sunrise Movement to demand a public pledge from the Biden team to shun oil-industry lobbyists and executives. In a Democratic Administration, however, the role of unions would be as important as the power of companies—and, so far, the building trades have done what they can to block efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
As Kate Aronoff wrote
in The New Republic
, last week, “establishment Democrats, but also relative progressives championing a so-called just transition, continue to treat the fossil fuel industry as a reliable source of well-paid union work instead of a rapidly sinking ship. As a result, they’re mostly unprepared to rescue its passengers.” This means, she points out, that Biden (and climate policy) likely would be blamed for the loss of jobs, even if it is the cratering economics of fossil fuel that is actually driving the shift. (On Monday night, ExxonMobil was dropped
from the Dow Jones Industrial Average after ninety-two years, overtaken by tech companies; as recently as 2011 it was the biggest company on earth.) “Democrats have to be willing to build a generous safety net instead of catering to deficit hawks,” Aronoff added. “And they have to start a frank conversation within the Democratic coalition about the fact that fossil fuel jobs are already disappearing.”
This isn’t impossible. In fact, Amanda Little suggests
, at Bloomberg Opinion, that it’s a conversation that needs to be had across many industries: her example is beef, where new plant-based meat substitutes “can buoy American farmers who have been struggling for years by helping them diversify their crops. The key ingredients in plant-based meats are soy, dry peas, legumes and pulses. As demand grows for alternative meats, so will demand for these crops.” As Little notes, we’re growing thirty per cent more dry peas than in 2018. “Instead of declaring a war on the meat industry, Biden and Harris should celebrate its evolution. They could emphasize that meat giants like Tyson Foods Inc., JBS and Smithfield . . . are themselves investing in a plant-based future.”
The point is clear: as Biden and Harris campaign for the future of our democracy this fall, they also have to lay the groundwork to fight for the future of our planet. That message can be communicated to voters: Biden showed how to do it with a commercial
that linked his love of his vintage Corvette to the future of electric vehicles. No, electric sports cars and industrial pea cutlets will not save the climate; but it’s crucial, right now, on the campaign trail, for politicians to help Americans understand the rapid and unsettling transition that physics implacably demands. We’re out of Presidential terms to waste. If there’s going to be effective American action on climate, it’s going to have to come from Joe Biden.
Passing the Mic
BP announced that it’s going to cut oil and natural-gas production by forty per cent in a decade. Is this a capitulation to reality that will spread or an outlier that has them scoffing at ExxonMobil H.Q.? Are we really at an inflection point?
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We are, and BP’s announcement
is significant. It reflects reality: a public and its policymakers fed up with fossil fuels, making a whole lot of it simply unprofitable to produce—same for the companies that produce it. This was true before covid-19, which has accelerated a process well underway. It could be the beginning of the end of the oil industry, but that’s largely up to us. BP’s announcement reveals important regulatory weaknesses. European oil companies are forced
to report and reconcile these losses in ways that Exxon and Chevron are not. So as BP reported this month a whopping $16.8 billion losses, it also unveiled a new business model, [more focussed on low-carbon technology] that’s supposed to turn a profit. That’s good. But BP isn’t keeping its fossil fuels in the ground. Rather, it’s selling off oil and gas assets to other companies that continue to produce the fuels
. That’s bad. If we want fossil fuels to remain undeveloped, we can’t rely on fossil-fuel companies. Left to its own devices, in 2030, BP still plans to devote two-thirds of its business to oil and gas.
BP also announced that it plans to transition from an “international oil company” to an “integrated energy company,” significantly increasing its renewable-energy business. Is that good news, and should it be followed by other companies?
, like every major oil company, has a long track record that must be taken into account as we build the new green economy. We’re subsidizing these companies to the tune of nearly five trillion
dollars a year globally, so we’ve earned the right to evaluate their work. Fossil fuels are not renewable, but they are natural resources with which humans have cohabited for millennia. The devastation wrought by BP
, Shell and others in just the last hundred and fifty years, through their control of oil, natural gas, and coal, profoundly undermines the notion that the answer to our problems is to entrust these same companies today with the sun, wind, and waves. The problem is not just the fossil fuels, but behavior and a business model that runs contrary to just about every basic tenant of equitable and just transition policy. Perhaps most importantly, theirs is a model built on ever-expanding demand. Yet if we’re going to survive the wealthiest among us—including the largest corporations—must embrace far healthier and sustainable consumption patterns that reduce our over-all usage of both energy and transportation systems.
You’ve been enthusiastic online about Kamala Harris as a climate champion. Do you know her from California? What gives you the most faith in her?
As attorney general, Kamala Harris was the rare California state official to stand not only with Richmond, a hard-hit low-income community of color, but against Chevron
—the most dominant oil company in the state [which has a big refinery in Richmond]. And in the wake of the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill she took aggressive action against Plains All American
Pipeline. As you’ve noted
, California is an oil state, yet throughout her political career, Harris has taken just $170,865
from the “Energy & Natural Resources” industry. She’s not beholden to the oil industry, and both her policies and platform reflect that independence. As a Presidential candidate, she went further than most to embrace keep-it-in-the-ground policy, stating her unequivocal support for a full fracking ban
and, most profoundly, pledging to initiate
a first-of-its-kind international coalition to implement the managed decline in fossil-fuel production and the phaseout of industry subsidies worldwide. I cannot emphasize enough what a game-changer this is. She’ll push Biden to be more aggressive on environmental
and fossil-fuel justice
, especially if the public pushes her, as well.
The damage from rapidly rising temperatures comes in many forms. The California fires are a dramatic example, but a new study from researchers at the University of Arkansas details
a more insidious threat: rising oceans push water tables higher, flooding inland areas.
Guido Girgenti and Varshini Prakash, of the Sunrise Movement, have edited a new collection
of essays called “Winning the Green New Deal
” that reads, in part, like a playbook for what needs to happen post-election, should Biden win. The Reverend William Barber, Naomi Klein, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Julian Brave NoiseCat, the union leader Mary Kay Henry, and others volunteered to write pieces. (I did, too.)
Those California fires, according to a magisterial
piece of reporting from Inside Climate News, remind us that a fundamental shift in fire behavior is underway. Droughts—the precursor to big blazes—used to be caused by a lack of rainfall. But, as temperatures climb, wildfires are increasingly caused by rapid evaporation during extreme heat waves. Such “heat-driven aridity” has helped create a “year-round wildfire season” in parts of the West, and in places like Australia.
On Tuesday, a committee of Democratic senators released an omnibus report on the climate crisis. In many ways, the most interesting reading begins on Page 199, where Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, and others collate all the known data about the political-influence-buying of the fossil-fuel industry. Should the Democrats regain control of the upper chamber in November, this will likely be a blueprint for action.
They’re cutting hundreds of trees to widen the road to Gandhi’s old ashram, in India. This seems like too much irony even for 2020; hence, a petition
At Harvard, where students and faculty have been waging a fight for fossil-fuel divestment for most of the past decade, alumni weighed in decisively: an insurgent slate of candidates for the university’s Board of Overseers claimed
three of five open seats in the most recent election, despite a last-ditch effort
by a group of alumni who accused divestment activists of effectively “buying” the seats on behalf of “special interests.”
The Australian insurance giant Suncorp, which has been the target of an aggressive campaign by the activist group Market Forces, declared
that it would no longer invest in fossil-fuel companies or underwrite their projects. That’s a big deal, especially because the country’s conservative government has made new gas development a cornerstone of its covid-19-recovery policy.
A new study
shows that Greenland lost record amounts of ice in 2019—and by record amounts, the researchers mean a million tons of ice per minute
. Every second
, enough water melted to fill seven Olympic-sized pools. A separate study indicated
that Greenland may have passed a point of no return: even a retreat to the temperature levels of the past few decades would not be enough, at this point, to prevent the country’s eventual melt. “The ice sheet is now in a new dynamic state,” a researcher explained.
The mediocre nineties act Smash Mouth played the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, last month, and took the opportunity to explain
to the largely unmasked crowd its theory on the pandemic: “Fuck that coronavirus shit.” So it’s either a good thing or a bad thing that, as the Times noted
last spring, in a round-up of climate-related songs, the band’s hit “All Star” is actually kind of about global warming. I’m not saying you should listen to it; I’m saying that it’s interesting.
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.
The Climate Crisis
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