02/03/2020

Annals of a Warming Planet: Welcome to The Climate Crisis Newsletter

New Yorker

A swarm of locusts north of Nairobi, Kenya, in January. The U.N. described an outbreak of desert locusts as a threat to food security. Photograph by Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty
Bill McKibben 
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.
We’re eight weeks into the new decade, and, so far, we’ve had the warmest January ever recorded. (Indeed, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2020 is more than ninety-eight per cent likely to be one of the five warmest years ever measured, with a nearly forty-nine-per-cent chance to set a new annual record.) We’ve seen the highest temperature ever measured on the Antarctic continent, and also record swarms of locusts descending on the Horn of Africa, a plague which scientists assure us will “become more frequent and severe under climate change.”

I’m calling this new newsletter—and welcome aboard—The Climate Crisis because this is what a crisis looks like. I’ve been at this beat for so long that when I first started writing for The New Yorker on this topic, in the nineteen-eighties, we called it the “greenhouse effect.” “Global warming,” “climate change”—those are fine, too. But they don’t capture where we are right now: not facing some distant or prospective threat but licked by the flames. Thousands of people huddled on Australian beaches this year, ready to wade into the ocean as their only protection from the firestorms raging on the shore. This is not only a crisis—it is the most thorough and complete crisis our species and our civilizations have ever faced, one there is no guarantee that we will survive intact. Does that sound extreme? Consider the conclusions of a team of economists from the world’s largest bank, in a report to high-end clients which leaked to the British press, last Friday: “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”

But the name of this newsletter is also a nod to W. E. B. Du Bois, and the magazine that he founded a hundred and ten years ago, at the start of the N.A.A.C.P. The Crisis was, and is, a crucial journal in the analysis of the race hatred that mars and shames and undermines our collective life to this day; it linked readers to news from around the world, so that they could examine the currents roiling their lives. I’ll do the same in a section we’re calling Climate School—perhaps, if only by long exposure, I have some sense of how emerging science, economics, and politics fit into the larger picture. I mostly won’t be doing original reporting. (Check out Emily Atkin’s excellent daily newsletter, Heated, for that.) And I won’t shy away from talking about the activism and organizing that many people—myself included—are now engaged in. Du Bois’s The Crisis was an organ of action, constantly suggesting ways that its readers could move forward. “Is a toothache a good thing?” Du Bois asked, in the first issue. “No. Is it therefore useless? No. It is supremely useful, for it tells the body of decay, dyspepsia and death.” A toothache, he declared, “is agitation,” and agitation is necessary “in order that Remedy may be found.” Since I am an agitator as well as a journalist, I’ll include many suggestions about where a push might help us make progress.

My sense is that we’ve reached a place where many people are eager to help. National polling released this month, in a study by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities, found that one in five Americans said that they would “personally engage in non-violent civil disobedience” against “corporate or government activities that make global warming worse” if a person they liked and respected asked them to. If that’s anywhere close to true, then it’s possible to imagine a movement big enough to make a difference—a movement one can see already emerging with the school climate strikers, the extinction rebels, and the Green New Dealers. I hope to introduce you to many of these people, and to the scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy wonks whose work undergirds their activism—people I’ve met in my years as a journalist and a volunteer at 350.org, the global climate campaign. Most weeks, I’ll include a short interview that lets them address you directly.

I wouldn’t bother doing any of this if I didn’t think that we could still make a real difference in the outcome. But I can’t offer you any guarantee that we’ll win—the short time that science gives us to make sweeping changes is daunting. When an iceberg twice the size of Washington, D.C., crashes into the Southern Ocean, or when the South is experiencing historic winter flooding, it’s a reminder that we’re a long way back in this race. The only guarantee I’ve got is that the fight is under way. Thank you for being a part of it.

Climate School
An as-yet-unpublished study from researchers at Brown University shows that a fourth or more of the climate chatter on Twitter is produced by automated bots, which are more likely to be on the side of climate denial. This is good to know: in real life, as opposed to social-media combat, polling shows that more and more people understand the reality of climate change.

The New Yorker has published luminous climate coverage over the years: few writers match the penetrating authority of Elizabeth Kolbert, and younger writers such as Carolyn Kormann are doing superb reporting. This recent piece, by Robin Wright, is excellent both for its evocation of the Antarctic Peninsula (the place on Earth, I think, that most feels like another planet) and its reminder that this is a war that we can’t afford to lose, because the effects will last essentially forever. And Bernard Avishai’s account of the vanishing solar-tax credit is a reminder of just how much quiet damage the Trump Administration is doing.

A new study in the journal Nature implies that the total methane emissions—the most significant global-warming gas after CO2—from man-made fossil sources (coal, natural gas, and oil) are higher than previous estimates. That means that they underestimated how much comes from oil, gas, and coal—which, in a twisted way, is kind of good news. Because, if we wanted to, we could turn off that source—say, by replacing gas with solar and wind power. The invaluable Hiroko Tabuchi provided a particularly good account in the Times, under the always-useful headline “Oil and Gas May Be a Far Bigger Climate Threat Than We Knew”; a key point for understanding our current energy debate is that natural gas is a bridge fuel to a dramatically hotter planet.

Passing the Mic
Without Christiana Figueres, there would have been no Paris climate accord—the Costa Rican-born former executive secretary of the U.N.’s climate-change convention worked tirelessly to create an opening where the Kyoto and Copenhagen processes had run aground. Her new book, co-written with Tom Rivett-Carnac, is called “The Future We Choose.”

Your book paints two remarkable pictures of where we will go if we don’t act on the climate, and where we can go if we do. Can you give the gist of those two worlds, in a few sentences?
The decade we have just started is the most consequential decade humanity has ever faced. If we are not able to cut our current global greenhouse-gas emissions by fifty per cent over the next ten years, we will be poised to enter into a world of constant destruction of infrastructure, congested and polluted cities, rampant diseases, increasing burning and flooding, mass migrations due to extensive droughts, heat or land loss leading to the abandonment of uninhabitable areas, and political turmoil as people fight for food, water, and land. At the current level of emissions, that is the world that we are heading for. If, on the other hand, we set our minds and determination to the necessary transformation, reducing our global greenhouse gases [by] half over the next ten years, we would have actually co-created a path toward a very different world: a reforested planet with regenerated agriculture, clean and efficient transport, enjoyable cities, clean air, and ubiquitous cheap energy for everyone.

Your endless optimism and hard work midwifed the Paris climate accords. Describe what it felt like the day you heard President Trump withdraw the U.S. from the agreement.
I remember I was travelling. I sat in front of the TV in my hotel with a sheet of paper and a pen in my hand, ready to write down every sentence that was correct. The speech finished and my paper was untouched. Not one sentence had been correct. The whole speech was based on incorrect information and a thorough misunderstanding of the Paris agreement. I was aghast.

You’ve worked especially hard to get governments onboard, but what’s your message for, say, bankers right now?
The financial industry has moved slowly but is picking up speed. The divestment movement has grown to over twelve trillion dollars of capital that is moving from high-carbon to low- or no-carbon assets. The recently launched Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, a group of large institutional investors holding a portfolio [valued at nearly four] trillion dollars, is already shifting investment portfolios to net-zero emissions by 2050. Larry Fink, the C.E.O. of BlackRock, which manages [more than] seven trillion dollars in assets, in his latest annual letter announced he is getting out of [thermal] coal and warns all asset managers about the risk of climate-exposed portfolios. We are beginning to see serious engagement of the financial sector. But more needs to happen in order to accelerate the transformation.

Scoreboard
Some major wins to report this week in the battle to keep fossil fuels in the ground:
  • The Teck company pulled its application for a vast new tar-sands mine in Alberta, after sustained campaigning led by, among others, some of Canada’s indigenous groups.
  • The Equinor company announced that it would not proceed with plans for offshore drilling in the Great Australian Bight, after sustained campaigning led by, among others, indigenous groups.
  • Chase Bank announced that it would no longer fund efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, after sustained campaigning led by, among others, the Gwich’in tribe in northern Alaska and Canada.
  • In Brazil, a campaign led by indigenous communities convinced courts to end plans for what would have been Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine.
    (Perhaps you see a theme emerging.)
  • Oh, and the University of Michigan, pressured by students, announced that it would freeze all new investments in fossil fuels while it decides whether to join others in purging its portfolio of fossil-fuel stocks. As Mark Bernstein, a member of the university’s Board of Regents, put it, “We have a responsibility to do everything we can to disrupt the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. This requires disrupting the flow of money to the fossil-fuel industry.”
On the very sad side of the ledger, researchers announced that the bushfires in Australia had burned more than twenty per cent of the continent’s forests, up from less than two per cent in a normal year.

Warming Up
There are mornings when I have a hard time joining the fight, and so sometimes I listen to the bell-clear voice of Kelly Hogan, singing “Sleeper Awake.” Send me your list of motivators—and anything else you think I should know about—at TNYinbox@newyorker.com. I’m glad we’re doing this together.

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