A climate scientist who has studied the Exxon Valdez oil spill earned the Democratic nomination for the Senate in Wyoming, a state that has a lot of coal.Photograph from National Park Service / NYT / Redux
Subscribers to The Climate Crisis newsletter received this piece in their in-boxes. Sign up to receive future installments.
About a year ago, the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, called to ask if I thought it might make sense to publish an anthology of the reporting on climate change that has appeared in the magazine’s pages. Since he works at a breakneck pace, that volume appears in print this week, under the title “The Fragile Earth.” It’s a wonderful book, demonstrating not only the depth of The New Yorker’s commitment to this planet but also the ever-growing sophistication with which writers have taken on this most important of topics. The dark splendor of Elizabeth Kolbert’s pieces alone is worth the thirty dollars.
The book opens with a piece of mine called “The End of Nature,” an excerpt from a book of the same title that appeared in 1989. It’s been a while since I read the words I wrote as a twenty-eight-year-old, and it made me nostalgic to climb back inside that young and perhaps overly earnest mind. The essay is a combination of reflection on the sadness of living in a world where the human imprint could be measured in every cubic metre of the atmosphere, and of straightforward reporting about what we then knew about climatic disruption. In the late nineteen-eighties, I could fit every scientific report on global warming on my desk. The articles and monographs published since then would fill an airplane hangar, but what’s amazing is how little has changed. Even then, we knew that the rivers of the West would be drying up, the oceans starting to rise dramatically, the ice at the top and bottom of the planet beginning a catastrophic melt.
But we even understood many of the details. Here is a small dry paragraph that I had forgotten I’d written:
One common suggestion is to replace much of the coal and oil we burn with methane, since it produces considerably less carbon dioxide. But . . . any methane that escapes unburned into the atmosphere traps solar radiation twenty times as efficiently as carbon dioxide does. And methane does leak—from wells, from pipelines, from appliances; some estimates suggest that as much as three percent of the natural gas tapped in this country escapes unburned.
We knew that, but we wasted much of the past thirty years wandering down that blind alley anyway. (Indeed, new estimates show that methane is eighty times more potent than carbon dioxide.) The Obama Administration’s response to climate change was mostly about replacing coal with natural gas.
That’s why it was very good news last week when Joe Biden’s transition team announced that he would not employ anyone who had helped to lead fossil-fuel companies. Assuming that the promise carries over to an Administration proper, it means that natural-gas advocates (and Obama holdovers) such as Ernest Moniz or Heather Zichal, both of whom have served lucrative terms on the boards of large fossil-fuel firms, will find themselves sidelined in the event of a Biden Presidency. That’s crucial, because we need people fully committed to the task of building out solar and wind power as fast as possible. Those technologies are much cheaper now than they were thirty years ago, which helps change the game. (Indeed, news came last week that ExxonMobil, not long ago the most valuable corporation in the world, now had a market cap smaller than a big solar-and-wind company.) As the credit-rating agency Moody’s pointed out in an analysis released last week, natural-gas pipelines are now an unwise financial bet, partly because activists have become adept at blocking them. The pincers created by the confluence of cheap clean tech and a stronger environmental movement should give Biden the opportunity to move far more nimbly than any President before him. That’s, of course, if he’s elected, which remains the first order of business.
Passing the mic
Voting season has begun in earnest, and so here are short interviews with two women running for the Senate. (I’ve had to condense both interviews for space.) The first, Lisa Savage, is the independent Green candidate in Maine. It is a really bad idea to vote for Green candidates in most races in this country, especially (as Ralph Nader and Jill Stein showed) in a Presidential contest. But Maine is the exception: voters there get to rank their votes, meaning that, if they’d like to, they can support Savage confident that, if she’s at the bottom of the tally, their ballot will then pass to the Democrat Sara Gideon, who seems to have an excellent shot at beating the Republican incumbent, Susan Collins.
Your version of the Green New Deal calls for cutting the military budget in half in order to fund the program. What kinds of things would that allow us to do?
A demilitarized Green New Deal would fund projects to address the climate emergency like an actual emergency. Federal funds now spent on building weapons systems could instead build and incentivize the purchase of clean-energy components like solar, offshore wind, tidal, or thermal systems to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. We also urgently need a European-style passenger-rail system for less urban areas, like Maine, to help get us out of our cars.
This would be a win-win for climate, because the Pentagon’s activities contribute greatly to global warming. [The former] Republican governor Paul LePage killed an effort by workers at Maine’s renowned Bath Iron Works to organize around a project to build platforms for offshore wind. But we’ve recently seen real conversion of federal contracting, when Bath Iron Works accepted federal funds to quickly build some machines that make a type of covid-19 testing swab. A Green New Deal would also be a win for jobs; research by economists at UMass Amherst has consistently shown that investments in Pentagon contracting produce far fewer jobs than investments in clean-energy manufacturing.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
How has ranked-choice voting allowed you to make this kind of case, without the danger of becoming a spoiler and keeping the Senate in Republican hands?
Ranked-choice voting is indeed a game changer. It offers voters an opportunity to vote their values when they #RankLisaFirst and then #VoteBlueNumberTwo as a safety pick. There has been almost no talk of a “spoiler” effect—and, when that is brought up by voters who don’t understand R.C.V., it’s amazing how quickly they come around to the system once they do understand it. No more vote shaming! I see it energize voters whenever I’m out campaigning.
Maine’s progressive old guard has come together with a young core of Black Lives Matter supporters and Democratic Socialists to form a progressive alliance in my campaign that might otherwise have stayed on the sidelines if provided with no candidate supporting Medicare for All and/or a Green New Deal.
Meanwhile, Merav ben-David, a climate scientist who has studied the Exxon Valdez oil spill, has the Democratic nomination for Senate in Wyoming, to fill the seat left vacant by the Republican Mike Enzi, who is retiring. (If she won, she would be the first woman scientist in the Senate.) That’s obviously not an easy fight, but she has produced one of the finest campaign ads of this or any cycle.
What lessons—intellectual and emotional—did you take from working on the Exxon Valdez spill?
Studying river otters following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we were the first to scientifically quantify the interconnectedness of ecosystems on a huge spatial scale, and to demonstrate the role animal behaviors play in connecting ecosystems. It’s like the butterfly effect: disturbance in one ecosystem can have unexpected, devastating implications in another, effects that we never imagined. That was true of the oil spill, and it’s true for climate change. So that project turned me from a wildlife biologist to an integrative ecologist, but, more important, it turned me into an activist.
I also learned this: it took Exxon twenty years to pay a fraction of what it was supposed to, and the local communities whose livelihoods were destroyed are still suffering today. The fishing industry never recovered. It’s a terrible lesson, but I learned that big corporations can use their money and influence, their lawyers, lobbyists, and P.R. people, to cause an enormous disaster and walk away from it unscathed. That fuelled my activism and drives my actions today.
Wyoming has a lot of coal. How can you help your constituents reconcile themselves to the fact that most of it needs to stay in the ground?
We all know that coal mining is fading, because the free market has been moving away from it for years. The Wyoming coal miners who were laid off five times in one spring and lost all their paychecks and their benefits, the parents whose kids’ school budgets were cut because our state budget depends heavily on mineral rights, know it better than anyone. They’re just afraid of the consequences, and I don’t blame them.
So the only way to help Wyomingites overcome this fear is to give them hope, to show them that they’re not going to be left behind. We have to insure a just transition, and present an alternative future, one filled with options and opportunities.
Wyoming can continue to be a leader in energy by investing in wind energy, and become a global mining capital of thorium and rare-earth elements. At the same time, we can also attract new innovative industries to Wyoming, like biotech and robotics. Our state offers a high quality of life in some ways; we just need to offer better access to health care, high-quality education, and modern infrastructure. Cutting-edge companies want happy and satisfied workers—we need to make sure Wyoming can deliver for them.
The climate scientist Michael Mann, who is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, makes a strong case that reëlecting Donald Trump would mean “game over for the climate.” But he also provides a hopeful update on the emerging scientific understanding of the time lags around carbon emissions and planetary heating.
The Stimson Center, in Washington, D.C., has launched a new index to help cities figure out how vulnerable they are to the rise of sea levels.
The British medical journal The Lancetpublished a remarkable pledge for health workers in the Anthropocene, a kind of update of the Hippocratic oath. It begins like this: “I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of humanity, and to the protection of natural systems on which human health depends. The health of people, their communities, and the planet will be my first consideration and I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, as well as reverence for the diversity of life on Earth.”
An important new study in Nature Climate Change found that the world’s oceans are quickly stratifying, with warm water forming a stable top layer. This is bad news—it means that it’s harder for heat and carbon dioxide to sink to the depths of the sea.
Despite everything, ExxonMobil remains unrepentant: leaked documents obtained by Bloomberg Green show that the company plans massive emissions increases as it expands operations.
Startlingly, most Texas oil executives polled by the Dallas Federal Reserve think that America’s oil production has peaked for good.
In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, environmental activists helped to block plans for a huge new shopping and office complex. Elizabeth Yeampierre, the leader of the community group Uprose, wants the site used as a sustainable-jobs hub instead.
An important new group, Law Students for Climate Accountability, has produced an incredibly sophisticated ranking of the environmental damage done by the nation’s top hundred law firms. It turns out that many of the whitest-shoe firms have the dirtiest footprints.
In a similar vein, the Environmental Defense Fund has launched a new “climate authenticity meter” that attempts to measure whether corporate plans are greenwashing or sincere.
There’s record heat across large parts of South America, and, therefore, not surprisingly, record wildfires.
“Terra Nostra” is a thirty-minute, multimedia symphony about climate change, composed by Christophe Chagnard, with poetry by Emily Siff and a film by Charlie Spears. It premièred in 2015, but the latest iteration has just gone online. It’s a magnificent half hour.
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.