Slow-walking the climate crisis
Travellers arriving in an unfamiliar city used to worry that they’d climb in a taxi and be driven to their destination by the most circuitous route possible, racking up an enormous bill. That’s pretty much what Big Oil and its allies in government and the financial world are doing with the climate crisis—in fact, at this point, it’s the heart of the problem.
Yes, there are a few bitter-enders who refuse to acknowledge that change must come. Earlier in the summer, the Saudi Minister of Energy, Abdulaziz bin Salman, reportedly told a Bank of America gathering that “every molecule of hydrocarbon” will be drained from his country’s oil fields. But most fossil-fuel profiteers have learned to talk the talk. Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, for instance, has lent more money to the fossil-fuel industry than anyone else—but he was wise enough to say, in April, that “climate change and inequality are two of the critical issues of our time.” The bank has pledged that, by 2030, it will invest a trillion dollars in “green initiatives that boost renewable energy and clean technologies.” Does that mean one of America’s largest financial institutions is moving away from fossil fuels? Of course not. Last year, Chase once again topped the charts as Big Oil’s biggest financial lifeline. Indeed, earlier this month, DeSmogBlog released transcripts from an “energy capital conference” held earlier in the year. There, Chase’s managing director, Greg Determann, was asked by one expert if the company was “still going to be lending to oil and gas companies.” “For a long time,” Determann said, without hesitation. “Mr. Dimon is quite focussed on the industry. It’s a huge business for us and that’s going to be the case for decades to come.”
The same logic that governs companies often governs countries, too. As the veteran energy analyst Ketan Joshi pointed out, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has set the de-rigeur target of “net zero by 2050,” but, in April, indicated that “the trajectory to any net-zero outcome is not linear, and anyone who thinks it is I think doesn’t get it.” Morrison traced a curve in the air with his hand after he spoke, Joshi noted, “suggesting emissions reductions occur very late in the 30 years between now and 2050.” “What we are seeing here is a mumbled acknowledgement of the macro problem, but an aggressive refusal to consider the micro components that comprise it,” Joshi wrote. “It is the core engine of climate inaction.”
This is absolutely correct. We call it “greenwashing,” but that’s too technical a term. We should call it what it is: people with a vested interest are learning how to slow-walk this crisis. They’ve done it with a thousand other crises, too, of course—one thinks of how, following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, segregationists managed to delay action for a decade or more, focussing on a single phrase in the decision: “with all deliberate speed.” But here they’re doing it in the face of an absolute deadline imposed by science. As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, we must cut emissions in half by 2030 or our chances of meeting the targets that we set in Paris just six years ago fall by the wayside. Slow-walking is sabotage—smiling, and deadly.
And, in the course of that slow-walking, Big Oil is figuring out how to game the system in every way possible: as Inside Climate News recently reported, energy companies and their lobbyists are filling the infrastructure bill with billions of dollars for carbon-sequestration projects—essentially, getting taxpayers to fund equipment to capture the climate-destroying gases that Big Oil’s products emit. That’s absurd: it would be much cheaper to simply shut down those power plants and build out solar and wind power instead. But, for the fossil-fuel industry, preservation of the business model is paramount—they want to burn the stuff they own, no matter the consequences. The Biden Administration is caught in a very hard place: the White House is sincerely trying to accelerate climate action, but to do so it has to get past industry allies in the Democratic Party (Joe Manchin, for instance, who fears that we’re “going to the EV” too fast), not to mention a business-friendly judiciary, which has, for instance, blocked Biden’s plans to stop new drilling leases on federal lands. That’s why, one guesses, you get leaders who know better, like the domestic-climate czar, Gina McCarthy, repeating old bromides about “all of the above” energy supply, or ignoring the increasingly bitter protests over follies like the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline, which runs through Minnesota.
The eventual outcome is not in doubt: eventually, the planet will run on renewable energy. But how long that transition takes will determine what kind of shape we leave the planet in. At the moment, the bankers and politicians in the driver’s seat are taking us for a very long, very dangerous, and very expensive ride. We didn’t ask for Hell when we climbed in the cab, but that may well be where we end up, unless we figure out how to grab the wheel.
Passing the Mic
Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, a native Indonesian speaker, is a dual citizen of Italy and the U.S. She’s worked at the E.P.A. and the World Bank, and is currently on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, where she’s written extensively on the shale boom and bust that has transformed the region. Her forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, “America’s Energy Gamble,” digs deep into the Trump Administration’s big bet on fossil fuels—it provides a stark backdrop against which to view the efforts of the Biden Administration.
Donald Trump, arriving on the heels of the Paris climate accord, slowed down our transition away from fossil fuels—most people know that, I think. (After all, he pulled us out of the Paris deal!) But how extensively did he damage our prospects for making rapid change?
Trump prolonged the stranglehold of America’s fossil-fuel dependency on its climate response for years, if not decades.
The U.S. Treasury purchased, as a part of the covid rescue package, corporate debt from oil-and-gas and pipeline companies. That sent the wrong signal for private investments, at a time when those investments need to pivot into clean energy.
His Administration expedited the approvals of federal permits for fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. Not only does such infrastructure last for decades, keeping pipelines functioning—either to recover costs or to secure tax revenue—but it becomes the justification for future extraction, as in the case of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
Trump’s appointment of judges who narrowly interpret federal agencies’ powers under federal laws restricts Biden’s and future Administrations’ ability to use rule-making to move the United States off fossil fuels. They may be more reluctant, for instance, to use powers under the Clean Air Act (as did the Obama Administration) to encourage states to use emissions trading to incentivize the power sector to decarbonize. Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justices—including Amy Coney Barrett, who chose not to acknowledge human-caused climate change—also weakens the prospects for successful climate litigation. That litigation provides one pressure point for incentivizing investments out of the fossil sector.
Joe Biden seems to be trying to get us back on track, and to accelerate our progress—what are the key markers for you of his progress?
By the midterms, the Biden Administration, using powers under existing laws, would implement key signals for economic actors, and it would invest funds, allocated under the American Rescue Plan, into communities and clean energy.
First, companies would fully disclose their climate risks to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and banks would undergo climate stress tests by the Federal Reserve.
Second, federal agencies would fully account for benefits and costs, including climate impacts, when they make decisions on leasing for fossil fuels or renewables on public lands and offshore, and on federal permits for infrastructure projects.
Third, the Department of Energy should continue to fund research, development, and deployment that further reduce the costs of green technologies and help new innovations enter the market.
Fourth, the Economic Development Administration would have approved projects under the Coal Communities Commitment to support these communities’ economic revitalization efforts.
Fifth, agencies would have implemented clear criteria to track Biden’s promise that disadvantaged communities will receive forty per cent of benefits from climate and energy investments.
Sixth, Biden would have reinstated the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
To achieve the urgent and transformative energy transition, Biden needs Democrats to get the “climate bill” through the budget-reconciliation process. That bill is critical for the massive deployment of wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and for the shift to more public transit and electric vehicles.
You’ve lived in—and written about—Pittsburgh. What does the postindustrial rise of the city teach us—and what do the region’s prospects look like now that the fracking boom has come to the region (and perhaps peaked)?
Diversifying the economic base, including investments into human capital, was critical to rebuilding Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s progress tells us that economic transformation is possible, but more work is needed to correct social inequities in the city and to diversify the economy of the surrounding region. Our region made the misstep of putting too many eggs in the shale and the petrochemical basket. With the shale bust, benefits have dried up, while too many local communities are left bearing the costs of uncapped wells and contamination.
On the hopeful side, many are working toward reimagining Appalachia, with investments prioritizing human capital, clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and natural amenities. We see some progress. For instance, several Republican and Democratic state legislators support community solar legislation as a strategy to create opportunities for rural communities. Several Democratic legislators support joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and one proposed bill would direct the revenue from that program to provide “transition assistance to workers and communities affected by the closure of power plants and other energy infrastructure.” Surveys show that the majority of Pennsylvania’s voters support the clean-energy transition. Sadly, legislators opposed to the transition are obstructing progress, but they are out of step with the majority of voters.
Amy Westervelt is normally an on-top-of-the-news climate journalist, but last week she offered a reflective essay about the suicide of her father and the way it exemplified the individualism that makes solving our big social crises so hard. “For a few months in those early days of the pandemic I thought maybe this would be the thing that would jolt America out of its obsession with personal responsibility,” she writes. “And then pretty soon everyone was making up their own guidelines to a global pandemic, so apparently not.”
Global warming has been spreading ticks ever farther north. Sue Halpern (full disclosure: my favorite writer) offers a bit of good news: we may have to make it through just one or two more summers before scientists come up with a preventative treatment for Lyme disease. Bad news: we could have had it twenty years ago, were it not for vaccine critics getting in the way.
One of the world’s really important climate activists, Avi Lewis, officially jumped into Canada’s election last week, announcing his parliamentary candidacy to represent a district of British Columbia that stretches from the Pacific through the ski slopes of Whistler Mountain. As his launch video points out, this position would be a natural fit: his grandfather and father were pioneers of Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, and he’s worked closely with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on a short film to visualize the Green New Deal.
In a deeply reported piece for the Guardian, Antonia Juhasz warns that ExxonMobil’s massive new oil fields off Guyana may turn into ecological disasters, even apart from the carbon they’ll spew into the atmosphere. “Experts claim that Exxon in Guyana appears to be taking advantage of an unprepared government in one of the lowest-income nations in South America, allowing the company to skirt necessary oversight. Worse, they also believe the company’s safety plans are inadequate and dangerous.” Meanwhile, in a scorecard of racial equity, Exxon somehow managed to come in last among the five hundred biggest firms in the United States. That takes serious commitment.
A tremendous win for activists in Louisiana: the Biden Administration has told the Formosa Plastics company that its construction permit has been suspended, and that it needs to go through a full environmental-impact-statement process before building a new plant in the state’s “Cancer Alley” region. “Today’s announcement is the ultimate David v. Goliath victory,” Anne Rolfes, the executive director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which has been fighting the project for years, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this is the nail in the coffin of Formosa Plastics in St. James Parish. And don’t try to build somewhere else. Pack up and go home.”
Here’s a comprehensive and depressing scorecard from unicef, which has released its first index of the risk to children from climate change.
Among other things:
- Two hundred and forty million children are highly exposed to coastal flooding.
- Three hundred and thirty million children are highly exposed to riverine flooding.
- Four hundred million children are highly exposed to cyclones.
- Six hundred million children are highly exposed to vector-borne diseases.
- Eight hundred and fifteen million children are highly exposed to lead pollution.
- Eight hundred and twenty million children are highly exposed to heat waves.
- Nine hundred and twenty million children are highly exposed to water scarcity.
- A billion children are highly exposed to exceedingly high levels of air pollution.
For the first time on record, it rained instead of snowed at the summit of Greenland’s ice sheet, two miles above sea level. This was part of the single biggest rainstorm ever measured on the island, a tempest that dumped seven billion tons of water. According to CNN’s calculations, that’s enough precipitation to fill the reflecting pool outside the Lincoln Memorial nearly two hundred and fifty thousand times.
Law Students for Climate Accountability released their 2021 report on how the country’s hundred biggest law firms are helping—or not—with the climate crisis. Mostly, it turns out, not: three firms got A’s, and seventy-one got a D or an F.
Early on, the Biden Administration—perhaps to court Alaska’s Republican senators—O.K.’d a vast new oil-drilling project in the state. Last week, a federal court gave the White House a chance to reconsider, ruling that the Willow project should be forced to take into account the climate pollution it will cause.
#TheHumanRace has people running, walking, and biking—and adding up their miles on platforms like Strava—to send a message to climate negotiators meeting in November, in Glasgow. If you want to burn something, make it calories!
James Balog is a filmmaker who gave us a remarkable account of shrinking glaciers in “Chasing Ice.” His most recent film, “The Human Element,” will soon have a companion book, from the art publisher Rizzoli; the publication includes work from his decades of chronicling climate change around the world.