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Global Warming by the Numbers, Because This Week the Reality Is Too Much

Message Bill McKibben
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Again, let's keep to numbers, the clinical (very nearly cynical) calculation of dollars and cents that hide both broken bodies and the basic immorality of the crisis. (Honduras, it almost need not be said, has done next to nothing to cause global warming.) Dollars and cents may be our best chance to attack the underlying cause of climate change in the years ahead -- the Biden Administration, absent a Democratic-controlled Senate, will struggle to pass straightforward climate legislation, but it should be able to put new pressure on Wall Street that could begin to starve the fossil-fuel industry and bankroll the desperately needed conversion to clean energy.

Less than a week after the election, the Federal Reserve started catching up to where European regulators have been for years, Politico reports, encouraging "financial firms to provide more information about how their investments could be affected by frequent and severe weather and could improve the pricing of climate risks, 'thereby reducing the probability of sudden changes in asset prices.' " The next day, the Fed requested to join other central bankers in the international Network for Greening the Financial System. That pressure will likely intensify, as new regulators take over in January.

"Leading Democrats," according to Politico, "want to go even further by forcing lenders to abide by disclosure rules and stress tests to make sure they aren't the source of a new crisis. The fear is that destructive climate events -- as well as a costly transition to a lower-carbon economy -- will wreak havoc on the banks' portfolios and destabilize the financial system."

The movement's second choice, Sarah Bloom Raskin, has impeccable credentials as an Obama-era Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, and has long been outspoken about climate change. The Federal Reserve Board member Lael Brainard, cited by pundits as another top candidate for Treasury Secretary, has been talking about the issue for at least a year.

It will be a fierce fight to force rapid change, but it's undeniably a shift from the status quo: in anticipation, the U.S. National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow, has said that oil companies have complained that banks might be discriminating against them.

Passing the Mic

Emily Sanders writes the weekly EXXONKNEWS update distributed by the Center for Climate Integrity, which works to "make Big Oil and Gas pay their fair share of the damages their products helped cause." The larger #ExxonKnew campaign began after reporters for InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times, and other outlets used archival research and whistle-blower testimony to show that the big oil companies, led by Exxon, knew all about climate change as far back as the nineteen-eighties, but, instead of telling the world, they helped orchestrate a massive campaign of denial. Sanders, twenty-six, has been, among other things, an assistant fourth-grade teacher in Long Island City, where the Ravenswood Generating Station -- an archaic gas-fired power plant -- loomed over the playground. Her newsletter is a year old as of last week. This interview has been edited for length.

Both Biden and Harris went on the record in prime time in support of suing oil companies"just like we did with the tobacco companies," as Biden has said. As for EXXONKNEWS, I want readers to know that Big Oil's climate denial, and their efforts to pass off the resulting damages, hasn't come to an end. These companies are polluting more than ever while claiming that they're part of the solutionand the situation on the ground is untenable. So I chronicle the ways communities are fighting back.

Trump was a boon to fossil-fuel executives, because he let them run the show. His Department of Justice sided with the industry in climate-liability lawsuits. There's a reason he boasted that he could "hypothetically" call up the head of Exxon for campaign donations in exchange for political favors. So, yes, I'd think that, especially considering the sinkhole of debt these companies are in, and how their star has faded over the past year at least, this election was a major loss.

It's because of their deception and the years of potential climate action it derailed that we are at this tipping point. So I would think twice (thrice, even) about taking any kind of commitments seriously from a company that has historically lied. That's why they're a named defendant in so many of these climate lawsuits. BP was the architect of the personal "carbon footprint," an idea that may have done more to deflect responsibility away from the oil industry and disarm the public than any other single industry P.R. move. We need to watch what they do, not what they say. Even if they put twenty-five per cent of their portfolio into renewables, they'll still be seventy-five per cent fossil fuels, which just isn't good enough.

Climate School

"" In New Delhi, the surge in COVID-19 cases is complicated by hideous pollution levels -- this month, the city was reporting that dangerous airborne particulates were 14 times the safe level. Ashish Narang, a civil servant, told the Guardian that he has not ventured outside in a week: "We were already confined indoors because of the pandemic but we could at least go for a walk with a mask but now we can't do that either. How can our lungs stand a chance against the virus if they are already blackened and damaged by pollution?"


"ï Governor Gretchen Whitmer, of Michigan, gave Great Lakes activists a massive win last week when she announced that the state will revoke an easement that allows Enbridge Inc.'s Line 5 pipeline to travel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline, which crosses what researchers have called "the worst possible place for an oil spill" in the Great Lakes, should close in May, after more than 50 years of use.

"ï Meanwhile, Minnesota's governor, Tim Walz, sent the opposite message, approving a series of permits that will let Enbridge's proposed Line 3 cross wetlands and streams across his state, clearing the way for construction to start on the tar-sands pipeline. Local activists say that the company has an army of construction workers massed, ready to start construction; organizers are begging the state's attorney general, Keith Ellison, to pause the plan, pointing out that sending laborers into rural areas during a rapidly spreading pandemic is unwise. It's possible that the company is rushing to get the pipeline partially constructed before the Biden Administration, which has committed to a "climate test" for big projects, can take over -- a tar-sands pipeline would have a hard time meeting that standard.

"ï Two important environmental activists in California were returned to office in the election: the former mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin, is back on the city council, a post she promised she would use to pressure Chevron, whose enormous refinery dominates the Bay Area city, to improve its environmental record. And Heidi Harmon was re-Ã lected as mayor of San Luis Obispo; she's committed to making it a net-zero-emissions city, a pledge that probably gained salience in September, when the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit in this city a few miles from the Pacific, crushing the old record of 115 degrees, set in 2017.

"ï The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban natural gas in new homes and office buildings. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "natural gas accounts for roughly 40% of San Francisco's overall emissions of greenhouse gases and 80% of building emissions."

Warming Up

You may recall that when Katrina struck, a former Arabian-horse breeder was in charge of the emergency responseand soon the butt of a thousand well-deserved jibes. Social media in Honduras has been making relentless fun of its ill-prepared emergency chief, Max Gonzales, who was known as Killa in his days as a reggaetà n star. Here's his hit, unfortunately titled "The Tsunami," as a reminder that sometimes people should actually stick with the things they're marginally good at.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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