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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/15/21

We Need the "Whole-of-Government" Climate Fight That Biden Promised

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From New Yorker

Some agencies are shirking -- even as the heat keeps dialing up.

Dry soil
Dry soil
(Image by sigurdga from flickr)
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Having had almost 35 years to come to terms with climate change, I'm used to the contours of our dilemma. Even so, the past two weeks have frightened me, both for what feels like a rapid acceleration in the pace of the planet's heating and for what feels like a slowdown in a few key corners of the Biden Administration's attempts to take its measure.

This past weekend saw what may be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded: a round 130 degrees Fahrenheit at Death Valley, in California, on Friday. But the previous heat wave -- the one centered on the Pacific Northwest and Canada -- may have been more anomalous. Instead of breaking records by a degree or two, it smashed the old marks by five, six, nine degrees. The temperature in Lytton, British Columbia, hit a 121 degrees -- the highest ever measured in Canada -- and, the next day, most of Lytton burned to the ground, in one of a series of increasingly out-of-control wildfires. Almost 500 people died in British Columbia in the course of five days, "compared with an average of 165 in normal times," and more than a billion sea creatures may have perished in the coastal waters.

The early "attribution studies" from scientific teams say that this extreme heat would have been "impossible" without climate change -- but that's pretty obvious. Less obvious, and more scary, is the possibility that the heat may be part of a vicious feedback loop that drives temperatures ever higher. "This is by far the largest jump in the record I have ever seen," Friederike Otto, the associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. "We should definitely not expect heatwaves to behave as they have in the past terms of what we need to prepare for." A Dutch colleague added, "We are now much less certain about heatwaves than we were two weeks ago. We are very worried about the possibility of this happening everywhere but we just don't know yet."

I was in the desert Southwest for much of the past two weeks, travelling across a wide swath of land that also saw record temperatures, and I can testify about one of the mechanisms that may be driving them. The ground is desiccated: in more normal times, the evaporation of soil moisture uses some of the sun's energy, but now there is nothing left to evaporate, so the land just bakes. To feel that dryness, to shuffle through the sand of the desert in midafternoon while the sun hammers down, is to understand the new world we're building -- and not over centuries, or even decades. The damage seems to be increasing season by season: as the drought deepens in the West, even the occasional rains barely make a dent; the reservoirs of the Colorado River behind the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams are at record lows, exposing old side canyons and even resurrecting rapids that drowned when the reservoirs were originally filled.There's less water to run through the dams' turbines, as the demand for air-conditioning rises: Las Vegas tied its record high temperature of a 117 degrees on Saturday, which means that a lot of cooling was required to keep the fun going.

People say that deserts aren't meant for cities, but there are 2.6 million people living in greater Las Vegas, and 4.7 million in greater Phoenix. If we're suddenly facing existential risks to this much of the country, you'd expect leaders in Washington to be all over the problem, if for no better reason than political calculus -- the region has red states, blue states, and purple states. Yet Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, chose the occasion to tell a crowd, "I don't know about you guys, but I think climate change is ...bullshit." O.K., he mouthed the word, but he's from the toss-the-snowball-in-the-Senate party. It's in the Administration, which truly cares about climate change and indeed has promised a "whole-of-government" effort to defeat it, where a kind of half-heartedness would be more dangerous if it emerged.

Congress is part of the whole-of-government approach, obviously, and even though everything there has to run through Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who has expressed "grave concerns" that we might be moving too fast on projects such as electric vehicles, there are signs of real progress. On Tuesday, it appeared that Senate Democrats had agreed on a $3.5-trillion spending bill to supplement the bipartisan infrastructure pact, which will direct funds to fight climate change. If that holds it's good news (though we'll still be trailing the European Union, which on the same day announced the first steps toward an ambitious 55-percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030). Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer even declared that gas is as much a problem as coal -- a major step for the Democrats. So there's progress but no guarantees. And the courts are part of the government, too -- and a federal judge just struck down President Biden's Day One effort to pause oil and gas leasing on public land.

To even things out, you'd need the executive branch hitting on every cylinder. Much credit to those in the White House who helped spur the Senate announcement, but there seem to be other corners of the Administration where the whole-of-government approach has not quite permeated. The Agriculture Department and the Justice Department, for example, are allowing Trump-era policies on old-growth forests and gas pipelines to proceed. (The proposed Black Ram clearcut in Montana's Yaak Valley is a stark examplescientists are very clear that old-growth forest is a key tool for carbon sequestration.) The problem is particularly overt when it comes to the case of Juliana v. United States, perhaps the most important climate-change litigation ever pursued in this country.

If what we've seen out West these past weeks is the new baseline, then the Biden Administration needs to make the whole-of-government effort it promised. Or at least the whole-of-the-executive-branch. And it needs to do so wholeheartedly.

Passing the Mic

By the World Bank's estimate, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions -- far more than, say, air travel. The environmental toll is high enough that you wouldn't want to waste any of what emerges from textile mills, which is why Jessica Schreiber and Camille Tagle founded fabscrap to collect and reuse the huge amounts of excess fabric that the industry produces even before you buy a shirt and hang it in the back of the closet forever. They've lured about 525 companies, including J. Crew, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, and Macy's, to participate. (Our conversation has been edited.)

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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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