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Annals of a Warming Planet
There Are No Borders in a Climate Crisis
Greenhouse gases will still sail right across even the biggest, most beautiful wall.
By Bill McKibben
March 31, 2021
Unlike climate refugees en route to the U.S., climate change is unconstrained by national boundaries.​Photograph by Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters
The “crisis” at the border is dominating the news, and, as my colleague Jonathan Blitzer has written, the immediate focus is on the political battle to prevent Joe Biden from passing meaningful immigration reform. But this might also be a moment for thinking about what globalism means in a world where borders ultimately can’t offer protection against the most serious threats.
To give an example: owing in part to climate change, there was a record hurricane season last year, with the last two storms, Eta and Iota, striking Central America. As Nicole Narea explained in a recent article in Vox, the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have been afflicted by climate-induced drought for a decade, leaving 3.5 million people facing food insecurity, but the floods from those two storms produced even more savage damage. Twelve hundred schools were damaged or destroyed; forty per cent of corn crops and sixty-five per cent of the bean harvest were lost. As a percentage of G.D.P., the damage is greater than that done by the worst storms ever to hit the United States, yet the people of these countries did comparatively little to cause the climate crisis—whereas the four per cent of us who live in this country have produced more greenhouse gases than the population of almost any other nation. So there’s really no way to pretend that migrants arriving at our southern border have no claim on America. Honduras could have built the biggest, most beautiful wall on its northern border, and our CO2 would still have sailed right across it.
And it’s not as if this is an isolated case. As early as 2017, according to the organizers at climate-refugees.org​, sixty per cent of displaced people around the world were on the move because of “natural” disasters, not civil conflict. In the past six months, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, about eighty per cent of displacements have been the result of disasters, “most of which are triggered by climate and weather extremes.” As Axios reported last week, using a projection model created by the Times, ProPublica, and the Pulitzer Center, “migration from Central America will rise every year regardless of climate change,” but, “in the most extreme warming scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years.”
There’s a rough analogue emerging right now around access to covid-19 vaccines. The U.S. and other rich countries are stockpiling more doses than they need. This is morally dubious; unlike with climate change, we didn’t actively cause other countries’ health crises, but it’s hard to make a case that the people living through them need inoculations any less than we do. It’s also epidemiologically dangerous: if we allow the virus to continue to ravage poorer nations, new variants will keep emerging and keep crossing into privileged ones. “As long as the virus continues to circulate anywhere, people will continue to die, trade and travel will continue to be disrupted, and the economic recovery will be further delayed,” the head of the World Health Organization said recently. According to the Times, for example, “even under the best of circumstances,” just thirty per cent of the population of Kenya will be vaccinated by mid-2023.
We could solve some of these problems by donating lots of vaccine, encouraging cross-national coöperation, and overriding patent protections and other intellectual-property restrictions. That would allow everyone to access cheap versions of these remarkable drugs—just as we need to make sure that the use of solar power and cheap batteries spreads globally, because we can’t solve climate change in one country. The pandemic and climate change are defining events in our century, and it’s useless to pretend that national boundaries are the best way to think about them. Biology and physics are mandating new ideas about human solidarity, and demand action in real time.
Passing the Mic
One of the decade’s key questions is whether large banks can be persuaded to end their lending to the fossil-fuel industry. Two weeks ago, more than four hundred advocacy groups called on the Biden Administration to end public financing for coal, oil, and natural-gas projects. Meanwhile, researchers at the Rainforest Action Network issued their annual report on the private-banking sector. They found that, though financing for fossil-fuel projects dropped a tad during the pandemic, it’s higher now than it was in 2016, shortly after the Paris climate accord. Funding for the hundred fossil-fuel companies with the biggest expansion plans—projects that will build new infrastructure—has actually increased in the past five years. JPMorgan Chase maintains its position as the biggest lender, with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America in second, third, and fourth. (Inside Climate News points out that the same banks are also financing food companies implicated in rain-forest destruction.)
The biggest changes need to come from government regulators, but there are lots of interesting ideas for how consumers can avoid aiding climate destruction. A new app from GenE can round up your purchases to the next dollar and donate the change to environmental groups. There are alternatives to regular banking, too. Scheduled to open later this year, in Tampa, is the Climate First Bank, where “eco-conscious customers will find dedicated loan options for solar photovoltaic (PV), energy retrofits and infrastructure.” On the East Coast, the Amalgamated Bank has committed to divesting from fossil fuels; Beneficial State, on the West Coast, is also fossil-fuel-free. (Bank of the West has been positioning itself in the same space, but ran’s annual report shows that its French parent, BNP Paribas, actually increased fossil-fuel funding by more than ten billion dollars last year.) And there are online banking options, too, such as Aspiration.
Ben Jealous, an Aspiration board member and a leader of the environmental-justice movement, helped highlight the role that banks play when he served as the youngest-ever executive director of the N.A.A.C.P., from 2008 to 2013. He is currently the president of the advocacy group People for the American Way. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
You’ve been an activist at the highest level. How does banking fit into the effort to fight climate change?
Finance shapes the destiny of the communities we live in and the planet we live on. My great-great-grandfather started a bank shortly after the Civil War to help build strong communities for people like him, who had been recently freed from slavery. It feels good to have another way to help insure that our planet and humanity thrive for generations to come.
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Can we actually measure the scale of change: carbon saved, trees planted?
Yes. It starts with measuring dollars moved. This is critical because, while account holders at the major banks may not realize it, most of those financial institutions are financing oil pipelines and other destructive fossil-fuel projects.
We refuse to finance destructive projects like pipelines and offshore drilling. We estimate that, for every dollar you pull out of a big bank and put into a place like Aspiration, you are eliminating up to five pounds of carbon that would have gone into the atmosphere.
Moreover, Aspiration’s Plant Your Change program allows consumers to plant a tree every time they swipe their card. Already, in less than a year’s time, we have funded the planting of five million trees, which has the impact of offsetting the carbon emissions of twenty-three thousand cars.
Between the fossil-fuel-free deposits and the trees planted by Aspiration members, we’ve had up to almost six billion pounds of carbon impact. That’s like taking every car in West Virginia off the road for a year.
And is this just a niche, or are there ways that these signals start to reach the giants at Chase and Citi and so on, who are funding the fossil-fuel industry?
Every time an account holder leaves them to come to us, or any of the small yet growing number of banks who have pledged never to loan one cent to Big Oil and Big Gas, they get that message. Every time the broader anti-fossil-fuel divestment movement we have all helped build announces a new major partner, pulling billions more out of circulation from them, they get that message.
Increasingly, they get that message from their richest customers, too, as more of them are demanding that their dollars be invested in companies that are actually good stewards of our planet. The message is this: the old economy is dying because it was unsustainable. A good economy is coming that will better sustain us all. Join us or be left behind.
It’s the same message my great-great-grandfather sent to his old owners, when he helped start that bank right after slavery ended.
Climate School
We are in a remarkable stretch for environmental journalism. Last week, Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, listed seven reasons that artificially capturing carbon from the air will not make a major contribution in the climate fight. (The Swedish academics Andreas Malm and Wim Carton offered a European perspective on direct air capture.) Politico’s Michael Grunwald contributed what will likely be the definitive piece on the indefensible idea of burning trees to generate electricity. (“Biomass emits more carbon than coal at the smokestack, plus the carbon released by logging, processing logs into vitamin-sized pellets and transporting them overseas. And solar panels can produce 100 times as much power per acre as biomass.”) Look for a Pulitzer citation for the Tampa Bay Times, for a truly remarkable investigation of the lead poisoning of the workforce at a battery-recycling plant in Tampa. (“It’s not unusual for water to hit liquid lead, triggering violent explosions that send molten metal flying. Scars from lead splashes are so common workers refer to them as ‘tattoos’ and consider them a rite of passage.”) And the Wall Street Journal offered a compelling graphic analysis of how much better electric vehicles are for the climate, noting that “by the time we get to 200,000 miles, the lifespan of a typical car, the emissions comparison isn’t even close.”A Tesla, it turns out, produces less than half the carbon of a comparably sized internal-combustion car.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into government suppression of climate protest, inviting people to submit examples. “This repression has taken many forms, from protest bans and laws criminalizing legitimate acts of peaceful assembly, to attempts to paint climate defenders as ‘eco-terrorists,’ to online harassment and physical persecution,” according to the call for inputs. “The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the existent restrictions on climate and environmental defenders as states have been enacting emergency measures that further enhance their powers. There is a danger that such new powers and restrictions may outlast the pandemic and may become the new norm.”
A new report from the U.K.-based New Weather Institute, “Sweat Not Oil,” details the sponsorship links between the fossil-fuel industry and athletics. “Sport floats on a sea of sponsorship deals with the major polluters,” Andrew Simms, the report’s co-author, said. “It makes the crisis worse by normalising high-carbon, polluting lifestyles, and reducing the pressure for climate action.”
Visual artists and climate researchers have combined to form a new group, Scientists and Artists for Net Zero. They’re starting their efforts with a letter to John Kerry advocating for a six-month collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and artists to plan for rapid energy transitions—and with a logo employing a new font, Climate Crisis, designed by Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, which is inspired by melting Arctic sea ice, and can be downloaded here.
Follow-ups: I wrote last year about the emerging Clean Creatives campaign to persuade ad agencies to stop working with the fossil-fuel industry. An article in the Times makes clear that the effort is gaining adherents, citing a major Swedish firm that has sworn off work for oil companies. “There will be a point when it won’t be culturally acceptable to work with these clients,” a principal at a Los Angeles communications firm said. Last week, environmental groups took out a full-page ad in the Financial Times in an effort to pressure the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, to improve the agency’s annual World Energy Outlook report, which, as I have noted before, has routinely underestimated the power of renewables.
Scoreboard
Last week, Ireland, which has some of the most remarkable climate activists in the world, adopted a plan that calls for a fifty-one-per-cent reduction in emissions from 2018 levels by 2030. That’s one of the most ambitious targets in the world—a decade’s worth of seven-per-cent annual cuts. That legal spur to action is as necessary there as it is in countries around the world, because, as Sadhbh O’Neill writes, in the Irish Times, “We have an impressive record in Ireland of using distant targets as an excuse to postpone action and in the hope that a magical technology will appear, or better still, a different government with fewer financial constraints on public expenditure.”
Matt Leacock, who sold more than two million copies of his board game Pandemic, is hard at work on a new game that tackles the climate crisis. “I’ve got a big opportunity to come up with a coöperative game that makes a difference,” he said. “I don’t want to blow it.”
Methane emissions from the oil wells in Texas’s Permian Basin are back at pre-pandemic levels, after tumbling sixty per cent last spring, when producers shut down wells in the face of plummeting crude-oil prices.
An extraordinary win in the divestment campaign, as the University of Michigan says that it is dropping fossil fuel from its $12.5-billion endowment. Not only is Michigan regularly ranked alongside the (already divested) University of California as one of the nation’s premier public universities but it’s also situated miles from the heart of the auto industry. President Mark Schlissel had refused to divest in 2015. Last week, he told me that “what’s changed for me is my growing appreciation of the long-term financial risks to the university.” Meanwhile, students are embarking on a legal fight to persuade the bitter-enders at Harvard that the time has come to join their peers and divest. And on Wednesday, Amherst College announced that it, too, was phasing out investments in fossil fuels.
Solar power is already the cheapest way to generate electricity across most of the planet, but the Department of Energy announced plans to drive the cost down a further sixty per cent by 2030, to two cents a kilowatt-hour.
Warming Up
The California-based punk band Neighborhood Brats asks a question increasingly on the minds of state residents: “Who Took the Rain?”
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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