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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/13/21

Is There Anything Funny About the Climate Crisis?

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Aminah Imani is one of the four comedians in
Aminah Imani is one of the four comedians in 'Ain't Your Mama's Heat Wave.'
(Image by Photo courtesy Hip Hop Caucus)
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Norfolk, Virginia, is one of seven cities in the region known as Hampton Roads, which is among the metropolitan areas most vulnerable to coastal flooding in the world. Like New Orleans, Norfolk sits extraordinarily low to the sea -- just seven feet above it in some places -- and Hampton Roads, where three big rivers converge and the Chesapeake Bay flows into the Atlantic, floods regularly. When a big storm hits, watch out. Also, Norfolk suffers from much the same patterns of racial inequity that made Hurricane Katrina such a disaster for the Crescent City. So you might be excused for predicting that a standup-comedy show about the impact of global warming on Norfolk's African-American neighborhoods would bomb.

But no. As the theologian James Cone once insisted, "Anger and humor are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to oppression, and humor prevents them from being consumed by their fury." A new standup-comedy special, "Ain't Your Mama's Heat Wave," which premià res next week at the (virtual) D.C. Environmental Film Festival, is an attempt to prove Cone's point. Born of a collaboration between the Hip Hop Caucus (see my interview below with the executive producer, Antonique Smith) and American University's Center for Media and Social Impact (C.M.S.I.), it features four standup comics from across the country: Clark Jones, Aminah Imani, Mamoudou N'Diaye, and Kristen Sivills.

They studied the environmental-justice situation in Norfolk with local experts, wrote some jokes, then staged a show for the community and its elected leaders at the historic Attucks Theatre. (The theatre is named for Crispus Attucks, a man of African-American and Native American descent who was one of the first patriots to die in the Boston Massacre, 251 years ago last week.) A report, produced jointly with C.M.S.I., documents the whole process. Charles (Batman) Brown, the Caucus's Virginia leadership-committee coà rdinator, explained the logic: "The social-justice and community activists are really good at organizing in their sphere," while entertainers can spread information easily via social media. "And, in the political world, you have to be invited into that world. It's always best, I think, when those three worlds can come together and partner up. I think the problem is that doesn't happen as much as it should." Happily, the Norfolk experiment seems widely replicable -- there are lots of comedians, and lots that need poking fun at.

Including, it must be said, the C.E.O.s of various oil companies and banks, who, with the advent of the Biden Administration, are lining up to make ever more earnest-sounding climate commitments. Within the past few days, Goldman Sachs joined the recent convert Citi in following Bank of America and Morgan Stanley in a promise to achieve "net-zero emissions" by 2050 with its financing, and Wells Fargo did the same, on Monday. (Chase, the biggest fossil-fuel lender of all, has promised to follow Paris guidelines.) It's good to see the banks acknowledging the new Zeitgeist -- that climate change is something we need to show we care deeply about -- and good to see them ruling out some of the most egregious potential clients, but it's hard to escape the idea that, in too many cases, the pledges are mostly a kind of performance. For one thing, no one is specifying how the emissions caused by the loans will be measured. It's tricky math, at best -- even the arguably most important leader in reforming climate finance, the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, had to walk back his recent claim that the $600-billion-dollar portfolio of the asset manager Brookfield, where he is a vice-chair, was carbon-neutral because it was investing enough in renewable energy to offset its holdings in the fossil-fuel industry.

Writing in the Guardian, the environmental campaigners Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft dismissed moves by various banks, because many banks and oil companies are using vague pledges as cover to increase their emissions in the next few years. Enbridge Corporation has announced plans to be a net-zero emitter, but that hasn't stopped it from continuing construction on the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline in Minnesota -- and, indeed, last week a consortium of banks announced that they would give the company an $800-million-dollar "sustainability loan," angering Indigenous leaders, who called it classic greenwashing. Royal Dutch Shell said that it would go to net zero, too, but also announced plans to ramp up production of natural gas, while employing "nature-based offsets"which translates to planting trees. Even ExxonMobil said last week that it was "supportive" of zero-emissions goals. American University is tracking the pledges from dozens of companies intent on following this route. But, as Bloomberg's Kate Mackenzie points out, "the total volume of offsets they rely on will quickly exceed the ability of the planet to provide them...there is only so much ground for planting trees."

These pledges seem to be a way of saying, to quote St. Augustine, "Lord, make me chaste -- but not yet." Augustine feared Hell; if we've moved past that, we should at least worry about a future with a similar temperature. I don't think that these banks and oil companies can keep this act up for five years, much less 30, because the fires and floods that roll across the planet will make them not the butt of jokes but the focus of rage. (New data this week show that going beyond a 1.5-degree-Celsius global temperature increase may make much of the tropics uninhabitable.) The way to avoid that is to do, right now, what needs to be done: if you're a bank, stop messing with complicated dodges about carbon offsets and cease lending to oil companies. No kidding.

Passing the Mic

Antonique Smith is, among other things, the singing voice of the climate movement. Since she covered Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" for the Hip Hop Caucus's "Home" album, in 2014, she has performed at hundreds of rallies and events, and is an original host of the weekly climate podcast "Think 100%: The Coolest Show." She has also earned Grammy nominations and plays Aretha Franklin's young mother in the new "Genius" miniseries from National Geographic. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)

Can you describe Norfolk -- what its divisions are like and how they set the background for this film? Did people there care about the climate crisis, and did that change as the filming progressed?

While the entire region, including the world's largest Navy base, is threatened by rising sea levels, the threat is not the same for every community. Black people and communities throughout the region are at greater risk for flooding, disaster, and toxic pollution. The city of Norfolk is about half Black, half white, but the St. Paul's district, home to a predominantly Black public-housing community, is representative of the economic disparity that has fallen squarely on racial lines; racist urban policies and climate gentrification posed as redevelopment are hitting the Black community the hardest.

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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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