While the world has been focused on a global pandemic and widespread protests, another crisis is gathering in the atmosphere. And no, it isn’t carbon dioxide: It’s that other planet-warmer, methane, a colorless, odorless gas which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2. According to two new studies out Tuesday, a combination of agriculture and fossil fuel burning has boosted methane to a record-high 1,875 parts per billion in the atmosphere.
If unabated, the researchers warn, methane emissions could push the planet toward a world heated up by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, one of the worst-case scenarios for global warming.
In the race over how to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, methane — a carbon atom joined to four hydrogen atoms — is often left out of the conversation. It doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide; when released into the air, it only takes about 9 years for half of it to dissipate and turn into other molecules. (Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, takes around a century.) But methane is responsible for a quarter of the world’s global warming since 1750. Tamping it down will be crucial for mitigating climate change.
“It’s a mistake to ignore methane,” said Rob Jackson, professor of earth system science at Stanford University and a co-author of both studies. “If we can reduce methane emissions quickly, we could shave a half-a-degree Celsius off peak temperatures.”
The problem is that methane keeps rising. And rising. Starting in 2007, methane emissions started climbing fast, after remaining fairly stable for the previous seven years. But scientists couldn’t figure out exactly why.
“It’s embarrassing, honestly,” said Jackson.
Some blamed fracking. When fossil fuel companies force water and chemicals underground to extract natural gas, they run the risk of methane leaking into the air. And studies have shown that, at least in the United States, these leaks are far larger than the government has admitted. Others pointed to the belching of methane from tropical wetlands, which depends on changes in temperature and precipitation, or to thawing Arctic permafrost releasing tons of fossilized methane into the air.
The new papers, however, tell a somewhat simpler story. Jackson and his coauthors blame the sharp increase on increased fossil fuel use and agriculture gobbling up land. Cows burp out huge quantities of methane in the process of their digestion; bacteria living in flooded rice paddies also spew out the gas.
Part of the problem is that the global population has surged to 7.7 billion over the past two decades — and many of those people are also eating more meat. “There are a billion and a half more people on Earth than there were in 2000,” Jackson said. “Emissions have gone up because of extra mouths to feed.”
Fossil fuels also play a big role, not just through fracking. Any time oil, gas, and coal are extracted from the ground, there is a risk of methane spilling out of rock formations into the air. Methane emissions from coal mining, for example, increased globally from 29 million metric tons between 2000 and 2006 to a whopping 44 million metric tons in 2017.
And, while carbon dioxide emissions fell when much of the world was locked down earlier this year (only to bounce back as shelter-in-place orders lifted), Jackson said that it’s unlikely we’ll see anything similar from methane emissions. Most of the decreases in CO2 emissions came from the transportation sector, as people stopped driving their cars and taking international flights. But as agriculture gobbles up more land and people continue to heat their homes with natural gas, methane emissions have continued climbing.
If there’s a source of optimism in the two studies, it’s Europe, where changing diets and better agricultural practices have decreased the amount of methane exhaled from the land. And despite repeated warnings that thawing Arctic soils could release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere, researchers say that hasn’t happened — yet.
While wind and solar power and electric vehicles tend to dominate the conversation around preventing catastrophic climate change, electricity and transportation aren’t the whole picture. The world also needs to act quickly to reduce emissions from other sources, like the fuels burned in buildings for heating, hot water, and cooking. In colder climates where people rely on fossil fuel heating to survive frigid winters, the carbon footprint of those systems is especially large.
There are two ways to decarbonize buildings. One is to replace all the appliances that run on natural gas or other fossil fuels with electric appliances — no small task in many existing buildings. The other is to replace the fossil fuels delivered to buildings to power those appliances with “renewable” fuels.
There’s ongoing disagreement about which of these options should prevail, or whether there’s room for both. Gas utilities, eager to remain in business, assert that renewable natural gas (RNG) has a future in buildings. A new report out on Wednesday by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club criticizes the industry’s aggressive marketing of RNG for buildings, arguing that it’s too expensive, there’s not enough of it, and it does not solve the health and safety risks of pipelines carrying methane or burning gas indoors.
Settling this question is urgent, as many cities and states are planning to achieve a low-carbon economy by 2050. In New York, California, and soon likely Massachusetts and New Jersey, state regulators are opening up new proceedings to figure out how to get gas utilities’ and their customers’ plans aligned with greenhouse gas reduction goals. New gas appliances tend to last for at least 20 years, so many of the boilers that are installed over the next decade will still be in use in 2050, and if the fuel powering them doesn’t change much from today, states’ emissions targets will be shot.
Renewable natural gas, or RNG, is a catchall term for natural gas derived from various sources. RNG can refer to gas captured from places that would otherwise release it into the atmosphere as methane, like landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and manure pits on dairy farms. Some utilities already purchase this form of RNG and blend it into the pipeline mix today. There are other methods of producing RNG that aren’t yet commercially available. It can be made from solid waste, certain crops like poplar and switchgrass, and agricultural residues like corn leaves, stalks, and cobs. Another category of RNG is synthetic natural gas, which is produced by splitting water molecules with electricity to create hydrogen gas and then “methanating” the hydrogen gas by adding CO2. Synthetic natural gas would be considered “renewable” if the hydrogen were made using renewable electricity and the CO2 had been captured from sources that would otherwise emit it, like the smokestacks of a power plant. However, no one is producing genuinely renewable synthetic natural gas at a commercial scale yet today.
Sierra Club and Earthjustice don’t reject the idea that RNG could be useful to tackle climate change. They just reject the notion that it’s a feasible solution for buildings. First, it’s a lot more expensive than fossil natural gas, and most forecasts don’t see that changing much in the future. The report cites an analysis by the American Gas Foundation (AGF), an independent research arm of a gas industry group, which found that some sources of RNG could cost between $7 and $20 per million British thermal units by 2040, but others could be as high as $45. Right now, the cost of natural gas is only $2 to $3 per million British thermal units, so a switch to RNG could mean steep rate hikes for customers.
The AGF study also predicted that by 2040, scaling up all of the different methods to make RNG in the U.S. could produce between 1,910 and 4,510 trillion British thermal units per year. Sierra Club and Earthjustice point out that the total consumption of natural gas in 2018, across all end uses including buildings, industry, and power plants, was 31,000 trillion British thermal units per year — so even under the most optimistic scenario, RNG would meet only a fraction of the demand met with natural gas today.
While the AGF study demonstrates that RNG could meet residential needs — U.S. residential consumption was 4,996 trillion British thermal units in 2018 — the environmental groups argue that the limited supply should be reserved for sectors where electrification is much harder, like aviation, shipping, and heavy industry. They also note that leaks from gas infrastructure are more or less inevitable, which means that producing RNG from sources that aren’t currently emitting methane, like energy crops, could ultimately increase methane emissions, which have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Ultimately, their question is, why waste the small amount of RNG from existing methane sources on buildings, which have other options for eliminating their emissions?
“I don’t think anyone can look at these numbers and credibly say we shouldn’t be aggressively trying to electrify as much as we can, as fast as we can,” Matt Vespa, an attorney for EarthJustice, told Grist. “It’s a feasible, cost-effective solution that’s available on the market today.”
Sierra Club and EarthJustice aren’t the first groups to call the feasibility of heating buildings with RNG into question. E3, an energy economics consulting firm, analyzed various scenarios for achieving California’s emissions goals in a report published in April and found that electrifying building appliances is likely to be a more cost-effective, less risky long-term strategy than RNG, with additional benefits in terms of air quality and public health. In short, this is because whichever decarbonization strategy the state pursues, gas prices are likely to increase in the long term, either because more and more costly RNG will be put into the system or because some customers will switch to electric appliances, shrinking the pool of customers paying to maintain the gas system. Either way, as gas prices rise, customers will be incentivized to go electric. In other words, while going all in on RNG for buildings could save gas utilities from obsolescence, it could also decimate their customer base.
However, E3 and other experts note that the long-term outlook for RNG — particularly for synthetic natural gas — is somewhat uncertain, and we could potentially produce a lot more of it, and more cheaply, depending on how quickly the industry scales up. In comments to the California Energy Commission, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists expressed concern that the level and speed of adoption of electric appliances by consumers is highly uncertain, as are the costs of electrification versus RNG. They wrote that letting all of the options compete “would promote the largest levels of decarbonization while minimizing the risk of failure.” A recent study on decarbonization prepared by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, for regulators in Rhode Island also found that an all-of-the-above approach, at least in the near term, makes sense.
“We believe that the uncertainty is large enough that as of today, you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in a single electrification basket,” Jürgen Weiss, an economist at the Brattle Group, told Grist. “We’re not saying wait for 10 years. We’re saying pursue all of these technologies aggressively for the next decade. That way we make progress while we learn about how quickly the cost of heat pumps and the production of renewable gas from electricity decline. And then we can shift.”
Heat pumps are the electric appliances that can replace fossil-fuel powered boilers and hot water heaters today. There are a few different kinds, but all of them use electricity to pull heat from outside of a building inside. Air-source heat pumps pull heat from the outside air, even when it’s cold out, and ground-source heat pumps pull heat from beneath the earth’s surface.
The economics of heat pumps vary. In new buildings, they are cheaper than gas systems to install, but retrofitting existing buildings for electric heat can be expensive. On average, heat pumps are more efficient than natural gas boilers. However, right now, natural gas is cheaper than electricity, so that efficiency doesn’t always translate into cost savings, unless the customer is switching from a more expensive fuel like oil or propane. Also, even the best-designed heat pumps can lose efficiency in extreme cold, so in some parts of the country switching to heat pumps would cause huge spikes in electricity demand on the coldest winter days. That electricity will have to be both affordable and reliable in order to make sure people don’t freeze to death.
The RNG Coalition, an industry group, told Grist that maintaining a parallel gas infrastructure system as a backup to electric appliances would add a layer of resilience to the system. E3 also recently suggested to a New York state climate council that in the coldest parts of the state, customers may wish to maintain backup gas systems even if they switch to heat pumps.
The problem with maintaining the gas system, or pursuing both options for the next 10 years, is that it means 10 more years of making investments in gas infrastructure that will never pay out if RNG doesn’t scale up or if customers begin to rapidly adopt electric appliances. It could mean 10 more years of system improvements and expansions that fewer and fewer customers are ultimately saddled with paying for.
“That is probably the most tricky issue in the whole story,” Weiss admitted. He said that heat pumps are likely to play an important role in the future, possibly foremost for cooling as global temperatures rise. (They are versatile appliances that can provide both heating and cooling.)
Even if not many people are buying electric appliances today — which the gas industry is quick to point out — government policies and incentives, technological improvements, workforce development, and consumer education have the potential to change that trend. But those things take time. Decarbonization deadlines are just a few decades away.
In early June, the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, filed a petition with state utility regulators advising them to investigate the future of natural gas in the Commonwealth. Healey described the urgent need to figure out how the gas industry, which helps heat millions of homes throughout freezing Northeastern winters, fits into the state’s plan to zero-out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — especially considering the fuels burned for indoor heating and hot water are responsible for about a third of the state’s carbon footprint.
Eliminating emissions from this sector means venturing into uncharted waters. While many states are rapidly developing wind and solar farms to cut carbon from their electric grids, few are tackling the thornier challenge of reducing the gas burned in buildings. Officials in California and New York, which both have binding economy-wide net-zero emissions laws, have recently come to the same conclusion as Healey: Meeting state climate goals is going to require changes to the way gas utilities are regulated. Earlier this year, bothstates opened up precisely the kind of investigation that Healey is requesting in Massachusetts.
Natural gas, a fossil fuel, has long been called a “bridge” to a cleaner energy future because burning it has a much lower carbon footprint than burning coal or oil. But research has called that narrative into question by showing that methane leaking across the natural gas supply chain raises its climate impact significantly. Recent developments have called the economics of natural gas into question, too: In early July, the developers of the high-profile Atlantic Coast Pipeline decided to abandon the project after an onslaught of lawsuits made the pipeline too expensive to build.
California, Massachusetts, and New York haven’t decided whether — or to what extent — natural gas can remain in their energy mixes. But the point of these investigations is much larger than those questions. There’s no established roadmap for managing the transition to zero-emissions buildings, and there are serious consequences to getting it wrong — huge cost burdens on residents, mass layoffs and bankruptcies at utilities, and of course, climate disaster.
The way forward will be a balancing act, weighing concerns about safety, costs, and the climate. Environmental groups have been arguing for years for what regulators have been slow to admit: Unless governments take a proactive, holistic approach to long-term natural gas planning, it’s going to get messy, fast.
“Figuring out how to decarbonize is going to be like a puzzle with, let’s say, 2,500 pieces,” energy policy expert Susan Tierney said during a recent webinar about the future of natural gas in New England. “It’s gonna be hard to put it together, and there’s a timer ticking in the background and it’s getting louder and louder.” Tierney explained that the pieces are in many different people’s hands — state regulators, energy companies, developers, building owners. And while a lot of the decision making will happen at the state level, there are also regional concerns. As more buildings convert to electric heating, multistate electricity grids will need to be able to handle the added load. “It’s not clear to me how the whole regional puzzle comes together fast enough, without dropping key pieces on the floor,” Tierney said.
Do gas utilities need to build new stuff?
Tierney’s puzzle metaphor gets at the web of deeply interconnected problems that decarbonizing the gas distribution system raises, and why these new investigations aren’t coming a day too soon.
One of the puzzle pieces is the question of how much new gas infrastructure utilities should be allowed to build. Investor-owned utilities don’t make any money on the gas they sell to customers — they have to sell it at cost. The only way they can make a profit for their investors is by earning a rate of return on building infrastructure, like pipelines and compressor stations. They can work the costs of these projects into customers’ utility bills. State regulators are tasked with making sure that all the stuff utilities want to spend ratepayer money on is actually in the public interest — that it’s necessary in order to maintain safe, reliable gas service.
But new state climate policies are pushing customers away from gas to cleaner alternatives like heat pumps. Heat pumps run on electricity and work similarly to air conditioners, except that they can also run in reverse to bring heat into a building in the winter. That means the question of what’s necessary to maintain reliable service has become a lot more complicated. If the supply of gas is tight, as New York City–area utilities have claimed it is, should they spend ratepayer dollars to build new infrastructure to increase supply? Or should they take action that reduces demand, like helping customers make their homes more energy-efficient, or switch buildings over to electric heating systems, water heaters, and cooking appliances?
Regulators are not used to weighing these options. In a press release about New York’s new investigation, the state’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, or PSC, admitted that there was “uncertainty associated with major gas infrastructure decisions.” This uncertainty has already created some conflict: In January, environmental groups were dismayed when the PSC approved Con Edison’s plan to spend $350 million worth of ratepayer dollars over the next three years to build new transmission pipelines, replace smaller pipes with larger ones, and extend the life of a liquefied natural gas plant.
Do gas utilities need to fix existing infrastructure?
Determining how much new infrastructure to allow is just the tip of the iceberg for regulators in California, Massachusetts, and New York. An even trickier question is: How much of the existing infrastructure should be maintained?
The transition away from gas won’t happen overnight. So, for example, in the meantime, should utilities fix gas leaks? That sounds like it should have a simple answer: Nobody wants methane leaking into the atmosphere or risks of explosions. In 2015, Zeyneb Magavi and Audrey Schulman, co-executive directors of the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based environmental nonprofit HEET, learned that gas leaks in the state totally canceled out the emissions saved through home energy efficiency programs. They became crusaders to fix leaky pipes, and through a collaboration with utilities, scientists, and activists, helped create a first-in-the-nation state regulation requiring utilities to fix the biggest leaks.
But then, an unsettling realization set in. “What we had done so far was great, we were really happy,” Magavi told Grist. “But it was like putting a Band-Aid on a disease.”
“Or on a patient that was bleeding out,” Schulman added.
“We started to understand that our state was attempting to fix the problem by replacing all the pipes,” Magavi explained. “And that that was an even bigger problem than everything else, because it was $17 billion of pipe going in that was not [going to be] paid off until long after we were supposed to have transitioned.”
Magavi was citing an analysis by the Applied Economics Clinic, a nonprofit consulting group, that found that current Massachusetts state policy has the Commonwealth on track to spend up to $17 billion to replace 6,000 miles of leak-prone gas infrastructure over the next 20 years, including returns for utility company investors. All of that new pipe is built to last for 50 to 70 years, and the costs to ratepayers will be spread out over that lifetime — but by the end, there could be few, if any, customers left to pay for it.
Sounds like a financial disaster, right? It would be. As more people switch to electric stoves and heating systems, the ratepayer pool paying for these natural gas line repairs will become smaller and smaller. The remaining customers who could not afford to switch over as quickly, who are likely to be low-income residents, and in many cases people of color, will shoulder more and more of the debt burden through higher gas rates. The Applied Economics Clinic study found that in a scenario where the number of gas customers decreases over the next 30 years, the remaining ratepayers could see their monthly bills ballooning up into the $400 range to finally pay off that $17 billion of pipe.
That’s one reason Elizabeth Henry, president of the nonprofit education and advocacy organization the Environmental League of Massachusetts, praised Attorney General Healey’s petition. “I hope that this helps force the question about racial equity and low-income ratepayers and how they are going to decarbonize,” she said.
On the flip side, if customers are let off the hook and utilities can’t recoup those costs, their investors will lose out. No one is suggesting utilities just drop the issue of leaky pipes altogether, but how much should they invest in fixing them? Asa Hopkins, vice president of Synapse Energy Economics, an energy research and consulting firm, suggested that in some cases, it might make sense to retire a section of leak-prone pipe and electrify the homes previously served by it. But how should regulators and utilities determine when that is the appropriate choice? “That’s why it needs a proceeding, taken seriously,” Hopkins said, “to talk through these things.”
Gas utilities expect to keep delivering gas for decades to come
Massachusetts’ goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 does allow for the possibility that some natural gas infrastructure could stick around. The state could theoretically hit its target using carbon capture technology or by offsetting any remaining emissions by planting trees or paying farmers to sequester more carbon in their soil. But as of now, carbon capture technology is expensive, and natural sequestration techniques are not easily verifiable.
Henry thinks state regulators will soon realize natural gas is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s goals. “The Department of Public Utilities can do the study, and what they’ll find, if they’re honest with themselves, is not going to be a comfortable answer,” she said. “The answer is that we need to transition away almost entirely from our reliance on natural gas.”
Naturally, gas utilities disagree. In response to Healey’s petition, the Northeast Gas Association, a regional trade group, told Grist that a balanced review of the issue will find that natural gas isn’t going away anytime soon. “Looking ahead to 2050, we see natural gas as remaining essential to energy affordability and reliability in the Commonwealth,” the association said in a statement.
But at the same time that utilities are investing billions in new gas infrastructure and to replace leak-prone pipes — indications they think they’ll be delivering gas for decades to come — many are also spending quite a bit of money to help customers improve the energy efficiency of their home heating systems or switch them over to heat pumps. Con Edison’s recent three-year plan, the one that allocated $350 million to infrastructure investments, also included $700 million for demand-reduction measures for its customers in Westchester and parts of New York City.
Several utilities in New York and Massachusetts are also investing in neighborhood-scale geothermal pilot projects. Commonly called “ground-source heat pumps,” geothermal heating systems run on electricity and use the near-constant temperature beneath the earth’s surface as a heat source in the winter and a sink in the summer. They require running pipes underground, a task that gas utilities are well equipped to do. Geothermal heating systems can also be made more efficient by linking multiple buildings to the same pipe system. For example, National Grid (which operates in both New York and Massachusetts) installed a geothermal “loop” system in a Long Island retirement community connecting 10 residences. Schulman and Magavi from HEET argue that these systems could be connected at a much larger scale. They have studied the potential for gas utilities to transition into networked geothermal companies that oversee a “thermal grid.”
Utilities have a few other ideas for their futures that won’t require drastic changes to their business models. One is to develop renewable natural gas resources, like gas derived from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. They also propose blending hydrogen gas into the natural gas supply. Hydrogen does not produce any emissions when burned, and if blended into natural gas would lower the overall emissions from home heating systems. The other upside to hydrogen is that theoretically, it can be produced using renewable energy. Europe is investingheavily in this technology, and California is also taking a close look at it. But today, hydrogen isn’t yet economical, nor is it green — it’s produced using natural gas. Even if all these challenges were surmounted, and utilities wanted to eventually go to 100 percent hydrogen, once the mix is more than 5 to 20 percent hydrogen, people would need to buy new appliances and pipelines likely have to be replaced. There’s one other option, which is to add CO2 to the hydrogen to make “synthetic natural gas” which could be substituted directly into today’s infrastructure, but that technology has not been commercialized yet.
When reached by Grist, several utilities welcomed the Massachusetts attorney general’s call for an inquiry. A spokesperson for Eversource, the largest utility in Massachusetts, told Grist that it would present “more of an opportunity for us to help the state achieve its clean energy goals.” The spokesperson also noted that Eversource was “the first gas company in Massachusetts to put together a proposal that included renewable natural gas, geothermal projects, and demand-side management, all of which will help reduce carbon emissions.”
National Grid also flaunted its all-of-the-above approach. “The Northeast is likely to need a tapestry of solutions for heat, and our research and experience shows us that the gas network can play an integral role, using new technologies to carry zero-carbon fuels like renewable natural gas, including hydrogen, or enabling geothermal districts,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Though seemingly willing to be a part of a zero-carbon future, neither utility has released any data or analysis of how their kitchen sink approach might eventually come together to meet Massachusetts’ climate goals. Healey’s petition aims to force the issue into the open by calling for gas companies to “submit detailed economic analyses and business plans depicting future gas demand in a carbon-constrained economy.”
Hopkins of Synapse told Grist this kind of transparency is a crucial first step. “It’s going to fill an important gap because we don’t actually know what the future, in some sort of real quantitative sense, looks like to the gas utilities,” he said.
Is there time to deliberate?
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking — and some citizens and local politicians are getting impatient. In the absence of a state-led plan, individual municipalities have taken it upon themselves to kick-start the building electrification process. Several cities in California have passed laws to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, and Brookline, Massachusetts, approved a similar bylaw last fall. (It’s pending approval by the attorney general’s office, which is expected to happen by the end of July.) There are also a few states that have sent clearer signals about their plans to cut the use of natural gas in buildings. Maine has a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps by 2025. In January, New Jersey released an energy master plan that included a goal of cutting natural gas in buildings by 80 percent by 2050. The plan also said that regulators would “establish a stakeholder process by mid-2020 to collect data and inform decision-making necessary to create a roadmap” for “a fully electrified building sector,” but they have yet to do so.
Hopkins is concerned that the timeline to answer the questions raised by Healey’s petition is a lot shorter than people think. If all the stakeholders — environmental groups, consumer advocacy groups, utilities, regulators, policymakers — take too much time hemming and hawing over the viability of hydrogen or renewable natural gas or electrification, there won’t be enough time for the next crucial step: developing the markets and the workforce to actually implement whatever plan they settle on.
Despite the incredibly stressful picture Sue Tierney painted of puzzle pieces falling all over the floor, her message ultimately did turn hopeful, and she supports the investigations that are beginning to catch on among state regulators.
“We’ve got to win this game,” Tierney said. “And it calls for much greater coordination and cooperation across the states, across the sectors, across policymakers and market participants.
“And if we get it done, won’t it be a pretty picture of New England?”
Ever since Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, President Trump has expressed displeasure with the U.S. territory. After trying to limit recovery funds provided to the island last year, he finally signed a long-overdue disaster aid bill before taking to Twitter to declare himself the “best thing that ever happened” to Puerto Rico.
But before all that, the president tried to wash his hands of the island entirely. In an article published in The New York Times on Friday, Elaine C. Duke, a lifelong Republican who led the Department of Homeland Security for four months in 2017, recalled that during her tenure Trump floated the possibility of “selling” or “divesting” Puerto Rico as the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria proved arduous.
“The president’s initial ideas were more of as a businessman, you know,” Duke told the Times. “Can we outsource the electricity? Can we sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?”
The incident is hardly the first in which President Trump has worn his “businessman” hat in the Oval Office. Last August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the president, in conversation with top aides “with varying degrees of seriousness,” floated the idea of purchasing Greenland. The gigantic Arctic island, which is rapidly melting thanks to climate change, is a self-ruling part of Denmark and is definitely not for sale. Trump nevertheless apparently believed that Greenland could somehow be purchased. In fact, a 2019 New York Times article reported that a former official heard the president joke that he would be happy to trade Puerto Rico for Greenland.
Although Duke said the idea of “divesting” Puerto Rico was never seriously considered and discussed after the meeting in which Trump proposed it, her recollection underscores Trump’s reluctance to support the struggling U.S. territory in the aftermath of the disaster.
Duke told the Times that, as soon as Hurricane Maria began approaching the Caribbean, she argued that the administration should declare a state of emergency before the storm made landfall. But Mick Mulvaney, then the president’s budget director, rejected her request.
According to the Times, Duke recalled Mulvaney saying, “Quit being so emotional, Elaine, it’s not about the people, it’s about the money.” (Mulvaney denied making the comment.)
Despite natural disasters continuously wreaking havoc on the island, Trump has constantly sparred with Puerto Rican officials, accusing them of “poor leadership” and adding that residents weren’t doing enough to help themselves. The blame went both ways: A 2018 poll found more than half of Puerto Ricans felt that Trump and his administration had done a poor job responding to the island’s calamities.
As Puerto Rico continues to weather natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, the island is also suffering from the same global pandemic that has debilitated the mainland. And just as with his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has denied any wrongdoing or fault for the lackluster actions his administration has taken to aid Puerto Rico. In 2018, he called his disaster response an “incredible, unsung success.”
The United Nations has called on the world to protect 30 percent of the planet from human activity to help protect ecosystems and slow down climate change. But conservation areas are often vulnerable to illegal logging, poaching, mining, and other activities that threaten biodiversity. How can land managers detect these kinds of human impacts on protected ecosystems? Scientists are applying machine learning to identify human influence on the environment by literally listening to the environment — that is, by monitoring forest “soundscapes.”
Every ecosystem has its own distinctive collection of sounds that change with the season and even the time of day. According to Bryan Pijanowski, soundscape ecologist and director of Purdue University’s Center for Global Soundscapes, “Sounds are part of the ecosystem, and they are signatures of that ecosystem.” The unique sound environment of an ecosystem is known as a soundscape, the aggregate of all the sounds — biological, geophysical, and anthropogenic — that make up a place.
Sound has long been used by soundscape ecologists to assess biodiversity and other metrics of ecosystem health. Pijanowski has his own, informal rule of thumb: “If I can tap my foot to a soundscape, I know it’s fairly healthy,” he says, because it means “the rhythmic animals — the frogs and the insects, the base of the food chain — are there.”
Detecting human activity that impacts ecosystem health, like illegal logging and poaching, has long been a challenge for land managers and scientists, often requiring expensive and time-consuming surveys in which specialists manually identify species. But this new method requires only basic audio equipment that allows for remote monitoring of the soundscape, which can be done in real time, and a machine learning algorithm that listens for sounds that aren’t typical in a forest environment. “Say that there’s weird things going on or illegal activity, like guns being shot, or chainsaws from illegal logging,” explained Sarab Sethi, a mathematician at Imperial College London and the lead author of the new paper. “We work under the assumption that illegal activity contains a lot of anomalous sounds that are different from whatever usual sounds are in the ecosystem.”
How does the computer identify strange sounds? The key is unsupervised machine learning, meaning machine learning that doesn’t require human input to “train” the model on pre-identified data. “The way that we measure similarities and differences in sound is really the technical advance from our work,” Sethi told Grist. This new method uses a neural network to compare the “fingerprints” of sounds — not only their frequencies, but the structure of how their frequencies change over time — to one another other. “Once we’ve got a fingerprint, like a bird calling — a bird calling is more similar to a different species of bird calling, in this fingerprint, than it is to, say, a gunshot,” says Sethi. The neural network learns which sounds are typical of a healthy forest environment, and which ones are out of the ordinary.
The unsupervised technique requires less work from humans to identify sound; it’s also more robust than so-called supervised machine learning. Unsupervised, the algorithm detects anomalous sounds on its own, without requiring a fallible human researcher to teach it what gunshots and chainsaws sound like. “If you use a supervised approach, your whole approach succeeds or fails based on how good your training data is, so how well labeled that data is,” said Sethi. “You don’t have that sort of reliance in unsupervised methods.”
Ultimately, Sethi hopes this method can provide new tools to land managers and scientists monitoring ecosystem health. For Sethi, whose training is in engineering, the application of machine learning to this kind of data seemed natural. “I was always really interested in real sensor data and applied math to get insight into the world,” he said. “It’s a really fun application of pretty cool technology to something that is quite an important problem.”
Grist 50 Fixer Xiuhtezcatl Martinez just turned 20, but he’s already built up an impressive resume as an activist and the youth director of the international conservation org Earth Guardians. The multihyphenate Martinez, who’s also a hip-hop artist and an author, has delivered several U.N. speeches, given multiple TED talks, and sued the federal government over climate inaction. For the climate-justice movement to succeed, he says, a multimodal approach is needed — a notion that has further taken root in the ongoing protests against police brutality, and has helped to amplify the link between systemic racism and climate change. “Our generation has a diversity of ways to tap into different movements that is really powerful,” he says.
Martinez spoke with Grist about why this matters — and offered a few ideas about how to inspire and motivate your friends to take action. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Start small by starting local
For anybody trying to get involved in the climate movement, there’s never going to be an easy list of five things to do, like, “Swipe these three things on Instagram and be revolutionary!” It’s not that easy. I’ve been reflecting on my journey as a climate activist and youth leader, and I think some of the most powerful work I’ve done has come from when I had a really deep understanding of what was going on in my own community.
I started building my organizing and communicating skills by understanding the impact of chemical pesticides in public parks in Colorado, where I live. Then I started looking at natural gas extraction in the fracking industry and how those things intersect with racial justice. And in this way, I came to understand how local environmental issues connect with the global climate crisis, which can feel so big and so far away.
Let your personal passions power change
Encouraging young people to challenge traditional notions of activism and organizing really inspires me. Our generation can leverage social media, leverage organizing tools that past generations didn’t have. We can communicate and tell stories differently. As a hip-hop artist, I’ve really seen the power of engaging with social movements like climate justice from a place of doing what you love. Regardless of the movement you care about, we show up better in these spaces when we are informed and doing it through a lens of what we love.
Our work is absolutely the most powerful in the climate space when it is intentionally intersectional. If you look at just immigration and climate, those two issues are tightly woven together. I just wrote a book, Imaginary Borders, that talks about this and about leveraging the power of our diverse identities as a generation.
Music and art have always played a role in social movements. I grew up listening to Bob Marley, Flobots, and Michael Franti back when he made hip-hop records. And KRS-One and Talib Kweli and a bunch of revolutionary MCs like Gil Scott-Heron. This music has been really inspiring, and it’s exciting for me to understand the cultural and historical context of the music I make. A lot of organizing in the environmental space has traditionally been pretty white and very comfortable in its own lane, and art and culture infuses itself into these movements — just breathes life into them.
In this moment we’re in, culture will absolutely shift everything. Even just something like kids on TikTok sharing really powerful messages and stories — that speaks volumes to this generation. As a generation, we hold so much power over the government, in creating change and revolutionizing systems. Amid a pandemic and a global, multiracial uprising of people demanding justice for Black lives and the dismantling of white supremacy and a lot of systems of injustice in this country, from policing to prison systems: In my lifetime, this is the greatest moment of people power I’ve ever seen.
The story of our warming planet can be told by degrees. The global thermostat has gone up 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and rivers of meltwater are now coursing off Greenland’s glaciers. Two degrees could mean crop failures and 500,000 deaths from malnutrition a year. Three degrees would be a hotter world than our species has ever experienced: The last time the temperatures rose that high was 2 million years before the evolution of homo sapiens.
Creep up another 2 degrees, and it could lead to the greatest mass extinction in earth’s history. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, things escalate quickly.
If you are like most people, you have a sense that climate change is bad, but would be hard-pressed to explain the exact consequences of each additional degree of heat. A few degrees of warming doesn’t sound that bad, maybe no more dangerous than nudging up your thermostat. So at what point do sweaty summers and mild winters turn into extinction and the collapse of civilization?
A new book fills that knowledge gap: Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas, an influential environmentalist in England. Lynas is known for his ability to spin stultifying scientific evidence into compelling prose and for conducting long-simmering public debates with other public intellectuals. Back in 2007, Lynas published another book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, but in the intervening years the climate changed so rapidly that he decided it needed not just an update, but a top-to-bottom rewrite.
As of 2015, a world warmed by 1 degree is reality, not a speculative future. Sea levels have climbed 6 centimeters, and evidence that fossil-fuel emissions are amplifying hurricanes has solidified. There’s so much new evidence that Lynas had to start over and write an entirely new book built on the same structure as the old one.
Lynas recently spoke with Grist about how much has changed in the last 15 years, how the COVID 19 pandemic resembles climate change, and how he manages to live happily while carrying the knowledge of looming doom.
Q. There’s a similar book to yours that got a lot of attention in the States, Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace Wells, which got into some trouble for conflating the worst-case scenarios with the likeliest future. How did you deal with the tension between telling a gripping story and being rigorous about facts?
a.The beauty of using 6 degrees of warming as a framing is you can have it both ways. It’s a grippingly terrifying story because you’ve got a strong narrative going from the relatively moderate 1-degree world up to the utterly terrifying 6-degree world, and you can read it almost like a novel as those worlds unfold. I’m not saying that we will ever see 6 degrees; that’s a product of decisions we have yet to make. I just think it’s useful to get outside these polarized debates about what the future will bring, because that’s not actually the question. The question is: What will happen if we do X? I don’t have to address the question of how likely it is, that’s a collective decision humanity will make over the next few decades.
Q. One of the scariest things you mention is the positive feedbacks, where, for instance, a world with 4 degrees of warming melts the Arctic permafrost, which could release enough methane to bump us up to 5 degrees.
a.Yeah, and that’s probably what David Wallace Wells would point to. Even if we are not going to quadruple our coal consumption, we still face the possibility of crossing these tipping points which make the global heating process unstoppable. Perhaps I’m more nuanced on that than I was in the first book: Some people thought that it was saying that if we crossed 2 degrees it would trigger a tipping point which would get you to 3, and then a tipping point which takes you to 4 like a line of dominoes. It’s not quite like that because we are not sure where the tipping points are, and because it takes time for them to play out. That Arctic permafrost is meters thick, it takes decades to melt, rot, and hit the atmosphere, and then decades more for that to turn into warming and then melt more permafrost.
On a lot of these tipping points, we are talking about centuries. For instance, I think we have already crossed the tipping point where the melting of Greenland has become irreversible, but it will still take centuries to unfold.
Q. After writing this book, how seriously do you take the threat of climate change?
a.I’m a pretty strong climate hawk I would say. If we want to save even a semblance of the world’s coral reefs, we have to stay on a 1.5 degree pathway, even 2 degrees leads to the bleaching of something like 99 percent of coral reefs. The saddest things for me are the annihilation of our biological inheritance — rainforests, coral reefs, the Arctic. You can argue that humans can survive perfectly happily for the first couple of degrees. But for me, it’s nonetheless profoundly important, and something I’m quite happy to spend my entire life advocating on.
Q. What about the scenarios that might not lead to the collapse of civilization but that would create mass suffering among people without access to air conditioning in, say, South Asia?
a.The date at which we make parts of the world uninhabitable because of extreme heat keeps coming forward. The first research on this put that date within a 5-degree scenario. It’s now between 3 and 4 degrees. We’ve already been close to conditions that make it lethal to stay outside in some parts of the Persian Gulf — just about touched it for a few hours. It wasn’t supposed to happen for another 2 or 3 degrees. That suggests it’s going to come more quickly. In terms of human consequences, the two issues that stand out are extreme heat and food production. I’m not confident that we can adapt the world’s breadbaskets to survive even 2 degrees warming.
Q. How does this grim knowledge make you feel day to day? Does it make you depressed, energized, or what?
a.I’ve been through all that stuff. I’ve had my periods of depression and profound sense of loss. To be honest, I’m so used to it, I don’t find it difficult to cope. I’m quite good at compartmentalizing. And these aren’t immediate things — it’s not the same as a war or pandemic, so you can actually forget about it for a bit.
Q. Do you see a parallel with the COVID pandemic?
a.The pandemic is like climate change on warp speed. The cause and effect are much more closely linked.
The lockdown is also a bit like the need to change our lifestyles to reduce carbon. So we stopped the flying, we change our diets, we make the sacrifices needed to bend the [carbon] curve. And then in the longer term, you’ve got the prospect of a vaccine. The climate parallel is technology substitution: You can replace dirty power with clean power, you can find ways to do zero-carbon travel. Those all take time, so in the short term, yes, we need to stop flying, but you can’t maintain lockdown forever, either for this virus, or for climate change.
Q. It sounds like you see both a need to live more simply, and embrace technology?
a.Well, the living simply thing isn’t going to work in the long run. The part of the world that is living simply, namely sub-Saharan Africa and other places way below the poverty line, don’t want to stay in that condition. It’s not a viable argument in a practical or even moral sense. Yes, it’s a lifestyle choice for certain people, but to pretend even for an instant that it’s a climate solution is insane.
Q. Wait, but you just mentioned flying less, don’t you think the richer world must make sacrifices?
a.I do, but only in the short term. Remember you can only sustain things by moral exhortation for a short period of time, and then people tire of it and move on. Like with the lockdowns, it’s a matter of months really. I think the same thing will apply to climate. Look, there are technologies available that would allow us to decarbonize and continue to grow prosperity, especially in the developing world.
Q. But in this book you are just laying out the consequences. You don’t propose solutions.
a.I just thought, fuck that, I wrote that book five years earlier, called Nuclear 2.0 It’s got a whole strategy mapped out for a transition to renewable energy and nuclear, etcetera, etcetera. Plus, I’d never be able to sell the book in Germany if I mentioned the “N” word. I would rather have a book that could be read by a wider group of people and allow them to then investigate solutions in whatever way they want.
Amazon’s fleet of aircraft, which is soon to surpass 80 Boeings, enables the e-commerce giant to deliver everything from dog food to Dysons within two days. It’s an impressive logistical feat, but it comes with a heavy carbon footprint — and is particularly conspicuous given the company’s recent pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. To start to address the issue, Amazon Air announced on Wednesday that it will buy up to 6 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, which it says will reduce its aircrafts’ emissions by 20 percent.
While the purchase is a small step that won’t substantially reduce the company’s overall carbon footprint, it may help boost demand for alternative fuels, which are currently too expensive to be competitive with conventional jet fuel.
What makes Amazon’s sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) “sustainable” is not necessarily that it produces fewer carbon emissions than conventional jet fuel when it’s burned in an airplane — it’s that it has a smaller carbon footprint when the entire life cycle of the fuel is taken into account. (In addition, many SAFs burn more cleanly, spewing less soot and other pollutants from a plane’s engine.)
SAFs can be made from a number materials, like various plant oils and crops like poplar and switchgrass. Many of the SAFs under development are made from reusable waste products, like used cooking oil, animal fat, municipal solid waste, and corn leaves, stalks, and cobs. Amazon plans to use a blend of jet fuel and SAF derived from animal fats and oils, produced by the fuel company World Energy.
To assess the emissions reductions claimed by Amazon’s SAF, you need to assess every step of its life cycle, compared to that of conventional jet fuel. Jet fuel starts as crude oil in the ground. It has to be pumped, shipped, or sent via pipeline to a refinery, where it is refined and then shipped again to the airport before it’s burned in an engine. The process for Amazon’s SAF, on the other hand, involves growing and delivering food for livestock, feeding and processing the animals, delivering the fat to a refiner and refining it, getting the fuel to the airport, and burning it in the plane. By saying that this fuel will reduce emissions by 20 percent, Amazon and World Energy are essentially claiming that this whole chain of events generates 20 percent fewer emissions than the one for the crude oil the company would have used instead.
Annie Petsonk, international affairs counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, called Amazon’s purchase an “important baby step” because it could boost demand for sustainable fuels. Today, SAFs are deep in the “valley of death” that frustrates many new energy technologies, she said. Sustainable fuels tend to be more expensive than conventional jet fuel, and investors don’t want to support the innovations that could bring prices down until there’s a bigger market. Some state and federal incentives exist to lower the price, but they still don’t make the price of SAFs competitive with conventional jet fuel, which is especially cheap at present due to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Petsonk said Amazon’s purchase will help demonstrate that SAFs work and that major companies are willing to pay a premium for them. Her team calculated that switching from conventional jet fuel to the new fuel could reduce the company’s emissions by about 12,000 metric tonnes of CO2. (Achieving this reduction could be jeopardized if production of the fuel has indirect climate impacts, such as causing other companies that use animal fat to switch to palm oil, thereby contributing to deforestation.)
Given that Amazon’s 2019 self-reported carbon footprint was more than 50 million metric tonnes, a 12,000 metric tonne reduction is a drop in the bucket. But at this point, the options to reduce aviation-related emissions are still relatively limited. There are other SAFs that boast larger carbon reductions, but they are still in the early stages of development. The Illinois-based biotech startup LanzaTech is one of the leaders in the space. It produces a form of sustainable ethanol for jet fuel by capturing the emissions from steel mills. Another company, Velocys, is building a plant in the U.K. to supply British Airways with jet fuel made from household waste that would otherwise go to a landfill. Both companies boast a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to conventional jet fuel.
“The mountains are calling,” says a post by Pattie Gonia, an Instagram personality and — according to her bio — the world’s first backpacking drag queen. “They want their femininity back.”
Despite monumental steps toward LGBTQ equality over the past 20 years, many in the outdoor community — including Wyn Wiley, the outdoor enthusiast behind Pattie Gonia’s Instagram account — say they still don’t see themselves reflected in outdoor culture. “Gay things” felt relegated to the city, Wiley explained in an Instagram post. Out on the trail or on the mountain, there was little room for rainbow flags, Ariana Grande, or the patent leather boots with 6-inch heels that have become one of his alter ego’s signature fashion statements.
But Wiley and others are claiming space for themselves in the outdoors — with pride. “When you live unapologetically, the world is on your terms!” Wiley wrote in the caption for Pattie Gonia’s first Instagram post in October 2018. Twirling hiking poles and dancing to Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Pattie entreated her fans to embrace their authentic selves. “Go for that thing and fall the f down,” she said. “Get back up. Climb a mountain. Hell, maybe even wear heels on top of it. Who cares, hunni, do you!!!”
That’s an ethos that the broader outdoor community is beginning to embrace. Over the past five years, new groups like the Venture Out Project and Out There Adventures have helped show LGTBQ youth and adults that there is enough space in the great outdoors for everyone. In 2017, REI hosted the first-ever LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. Even the climbing community — notoriously perceived as overwhelmingly heterosexual — has an annual HomoClimbtastic rock climbing festival.
“Queer people have always been doing these things,” said Lance Garland, a journalist and firefighter in the Pacific Northwest who identifies as gay. Hikers, backpackers, climbers — LGBTQ adventurers have been out there forever. What’s new, he said, is that people are now eager to tell, seek, and celebrate stories that go beyond the stereotype of the straight, white, male nature lover.
Social media has helped, he added, amplifying the voices of people who don’t typically get as much press attention. Take Jenny Bruso, for example, an activist who was featured on the Grist 50 list in 2019. Her Unlikely Hikers Instagram account has garnered almost 100,000 followers and features “people of size, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans, and nonbinary” folks on the trail. Pattie Gonia, for her part, has attracted a whopping quarter million followers in just under two years.
Not long ago, many outdoor enthusiasts said they didn’t know of any openly LGBTQ role models who were out hiking, biking, and rock-scrambling. For Mikah Meyer, a native Nebraskan who in 2019 became the first person to visit all 417 National Parks Service parks, something as simple as representation can make a huge difference in creating a welcoming environment for non-heterosexual adventurers.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” he told Grist, quoting the civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman. And what you do see most frequently in advertisements, he added, is a very specific image of what an “outdoorsman” should be: He’s male. He’s wearing a flannel. He has a beer in hand. “And he’s always straight,” Meyer said.
As a gay man growing up in the Midwest, Meyer said it was difficult to find LGBTQ role models that he could identify with. He didn’t meet an openly gay man until he left Nebraska for college. Even in 2017, as Meyer searched for a corporate sponsor for his three-year quest to visit all 417 parks, he couldn’t find any vocal LGBTQ people representing a major outdoor brand.
“The implicit message that I got was that outdoor culture does not want gay people involved,” he said. That was true for one of his early sponsors: As soon as Meyer began using his trip to advocate for LGBTQ issues, they told him it was too much and dropped their sponsorship. He was later picked up by REI as an ambassador for their #OptOutside program, and would go on to consult for the company’s LGBTQ programming.
However, Meyer says that his outward appearance has made it relatively easy to be gay in the outdoors. “I have the privilege of being able to pass as a straight white man,” he said.
That isn’t the case for many in the queer community, including Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Lucy Parks, who is nonbinary and transgender and uses they/them pronouns. Parks calls themselves a “100-footer,” meaning their LGBTQ status can be spotted from 100 feet away.
“I’m a very visibly queer person,” Parks said. “For a long time, I didn’t really see thru-hiking as an option.” Growing up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Parks had always loved the outdoors, and ever since they read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, they had wanted to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. But hearing about the 1996 murder of a lesbian couple in Shenandoah National Park — not far from where Parks grew up — gave them pause. “If I go out in the woods looking the way I look, what are people going to do?” they wondered.
Parks completed the AT last year. Although some people were dismissive of their pronouns and gender identity, others were eager to welcome Parks into the trail community. Mostly, Parks said, the trail was a therapeutic and restorative space, free from many of the societal constraints that plague nonbinary folks. “Many of us can’t enter a gender-divided bathroom without trepidation,” they wrote in Outside Online. “In the woods, of course, you can pee wherever you want.”
Still, there are enduring problems. “The outdoor community somehow believes that it is not political,” said Aer Parris, an outdoor writer* and and nature enthusiast who identifies as queer. In a way, that’s understandable, they added — people go into the outdoors to get away from things, to rest and rejuvenate. That’s partially what drew Parris into a cross-country bike trip a few years ago, and later into the Seattle mountaineering community. But that doesn’t mean LGBTQ equality should be off-limits for trail talk. “When an entire community is pretending that politics are not part of the outdoors,” Parris said, “you’re unable to have conversations that could create change.”
Travis Clough, director of trail operations for the Venture Out Project, says he often hears people say, “Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay.” But Mother Nature isn’t the problem. “We’re talking about all the assholes on the trail,” he said. “I can’t do anything if I don’t feel safe.”
The only way to combat these issues, Clough says, is to continue working on LGBTQ visibility, creating safe spaces for hikers of all genders and sexualities through programming and education. Parris also points to the need for a holistic, intersectional approach to outdoor equity. “We need everyone together,” Parris said. “If you’re not seeing BLM in your outdoor spaces, trans lives matter, immigrant lives matter — you’re not seeing a whole swath of people who are not able to access the outdoors in the same way.”
There is still work to do, and the outdoor community is nowhere near as diverse or inclusive as it should be. But Meyer, Garland, and their fellow LGBTQ outdoorspeople are hopeful that the recent upswing in visibly queer role models in the outdoors will start to turn the tide, letting others know that they are welcome in the wildest wildernesses.
“Even if you don’t see exactly who you are represented in your social media or in books or in pop culture,” Garland said, “just go be that person. Right now in the outdoors industry, we’re having the opportunity to be trailblazers.”
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Aer Parris’ job. They are an outdoor writer.
Before he was the guy with the climate change PowerPoint presentation, before he lost the U.S. presidency by a nose (and a Supreme Court decision), Al Gore had a reputation for pitching ambitious policy solutions to the knottiest societal problems. From the Senate to the vice presidency, while most politicians were yelling about oil prices, Gore was talking about connecting information superhighways to public schools and taxing British Thermal Units to fight global warming.
For the past decade and a half, Gore, a self-described “recovering politician,” has been a capitalist. He’s chair of Generation Investment Management, a $20 billion equity firm focusing on environmentally sustainable companies. It might seem like a tough time to put on that specific happy face — a pandemic and resurgent fights over racial and economic inequality might take cuts in the queue ahead of a global economic meltdown and planetary ecosystem collapse. Even Generation’s annual sustainability report shows that public attention toward climate change has taken a backseat to concerns about the novel coronavirus. Yet somehow now, as the firm releases this fourth annual Sustainability Trends Report, Gore seems almost … optimistic. Which — well, how could that be?
It turns out that the trend lines Gore has spent a lifetime either warning people about (carbon!) or trying to goose upward (green energy! access to health care!) are finally headed in the directions he was hoping for. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has accelerated the kinds of systemic changes he pushed for, first with legislation and then with investments. And while Gore declined to offer specific advice for how leaders in the public sector should be handling the pandemic, he seems supremely confident that pressure from the private sector will steer governments in the right direction. He also believes the world will be “pleasantly surprised” by sooner-than-expected, safe vaccines, and that the public will somehow overcome the misinformation atrocities on that thing called the internet.
As a presidential candidate in what turns out to have been a far simpler time, Gore had a reputation for prickliness — for not being the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with, as if that were a valid criterion for choosing a president. But nothing softens a person’s attitude than a book’s worth of evidence that maybe he was right all along. Gore talked to Wired reporters Adam Rogers and Lauren Goode about the business and political trends that COVID-19 has turbocharged in what he hopes are the right directions. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Rogers: Implicit in Generation’s strategy of investing in growth-stage companies is some basic confidence you must have that a venture capital investment model is a way to push innovation. When three-quarters of venture capital investments are in software, not things like biotech or big engineering, why does venture capital seem to you to be a way to address big problems like climate and public health? Is investment the way to get the innovation that you need?
A. Well, first of all, let me just note for the record that we don’t do venture capital investing. We do growth stage investing, and the larger part of our business is in global equity. What we found in our fourth annual Sustainability Trends Report is that — well, a lot of things — but first of all, in responding to the pandemic there has been a growing recognition around the world of the new political and social realities that give us a generational obligation to shift to a more sustainable world. Governments have to play a role, investors have to play a role, and businesses have to play a role, all to ensure that the short-term emergency and recovery measures lead to a better and more resilient future.
Let me just say a couple of other things, Adam. We find that there is an unmistakable, rising awareness of the need for change. The pandemic accelerated fundamental changes in consumer and social behavior, and this is matched by an acceleration in innovation by governments and businesses. Secondly, we have found a growing awareness that the world’s collective social and economic faith is inextricably linked to that of the natural world. There is now a widespread, shared understanding of what an existential threat might look like. The consequences of ignoring scientific advice from epidemiologists and virologists has been brought home to us. And it is not much of a leap to realize that the dire advice from a climate scientist must be taken into account as well.
In order to limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees C, greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by roughly 7.5 percent per year for the next decade. That’s more than the drop expected this year due to COVID-19. And that sounds daunting, but we are finding fundamental changes in the global economy pushing us toward sustainability. And the report highlights the many ways in which the burden of this crisis has fallen unequally. Addressing these historical injustices reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement has to be at the center of a transition to a sustainable future.
Sorry to go on too long. I wanted to get the basics out there.
Q. Rogers: You’ve been known for ambitious policy solutions to really hairy problems. You’re saying that our three current crises — COVID-19, climate, and inequality — are intertwined. So I just want to ask you to make the connection between an investment fund and the policy and structural changes that seem likely to be necessary. If the real answers are, you have to rip up the way health care gets handled in the United States and the way fossil fuel gets subsidized, then how do you get there with an investment fund?
A. Well, those are some of the things that need to happen, for sure. First of all, there has been a fundamental shift in thinking in the business world and in the investor world. Just in the last six months, both the Business Roundtable and the British Academy have made a fundamental change to their definition of the purpose of a corporation. They have dethroned shareholder primacy and emphasized multi-stakeholder analysis and a long-term view.
That’s reflected in the new awareness of the sustainability revolution. We believe that we’re in the early stages of a sustainability revolution, one that will be larger than the Industrial Revolution, with the speed of the digital revolution. We believe it’s the biggest investing opportunity in the history of the world, and the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world.
But to get a little more granular, on the subject of health, we are right at a tipping point in the adoption of personalized health care. Interest in direct-to-consumer health care has quadrupled over the last five years. And in April of this year COVID-19 became one of the top five drivers of telehealth. Now weaknesses and preparedness and the capacity to respond to this crisis have relevance beyond health care, because it is triggering a new awareness of the need for change and improvements in social safety nets in the role of essential workers. And to address the unequal access to health care that I mentioned earlier, it has a huge impact on life expectancy for different groups. Also in some countries, like the U.S., administrative costs now account for nearly 10 percent of total health spending. That is unacceptable.
Q. Rogers: You just said that was a huge opportunity for investing and a business opportunity. Do you not see a tension between so-called Environmental, Social, and Governance investing and the fiduciary responsibility that institutional investors and executives have to maximize returns? Or do you think that responsibility now actually includes ESG investing?
A. Yes, I believe that is the case. First of all, there is now voluminous research showing that businesses that fully integrate ESG factors into their business plans are more profitable in almost every sector of the global economy. And the research also shows very clearly that investors that fully integrate ESG factors into their investment models perform better. So as this reality becomes more widely known and understood, asset managers who do not integrate ESG factors are definitely at high risk of violating their fiduciary responsibility to their clients. And there’s some irony in that, because during an earlier period those who ignored ESG — including some that diminished the importance of ESG factors that used to often claim, “Well, you can’t use those factors because you might violate your fiduciary responsibility” — that’s been turned on its head now.
Q. Goode: In going through your portfolio companies, it struck me how some of them appear to be rather prescient and some less so. I’m sure that’s something that a lot of investors are going through right now, since the world has dramatically changed in a short amount of time. You’ve invested in Toast, which is restaurant management technology; ProTerra, for electric buses; Convoy was another — so a couple there in the transit and transportation sector. So, we’re living in a connected world in the time of COVID-19, but also at the same time things like the point-of-sale experience has changed in the pandemic, and public transit is being cut or even questioned in terms of public safety. I’m wondering how COVID-19 has changed your investment thinking and what may be some areas or companies you’re eyeing right now that you weren’t looking at just four to six months ago.
A. OK, if you have your pencil, I’ll give you the top 10 companies that we’re just about to invest in.
Q. Goode: Please. Just pull back the curtain!
A. No, I’m probably not going to do that, but it’s a very thoughtful question.
We were founded 16 years ago, and we’ve been managing assets for 15 years. And our goal throughout our existence has been to get the best return for our clients, and to do it in a way that proves the business case for sustainable investing. We only invest in businesses that we believe produce goods and services that are consistent with the emergence of a clean, prosperous, healthy, fair world. And we have had, for all of that time, a conviction that the world was moving in this direction. That’s kind of been driven by the laws of physics. We’re putting 150 million tons of global warming pollution into the sky every day, and the cumulative amount is trapping enough heat to equal the energy release by 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic explosions every day.
I won’t go through the rest of the bill of particulars, but it’s been obvious for quite a while that the world is changing because human activities are changing the world. And as those changes mount up, we’re going to have to to deal with them. We’re going to have to mitigate the climate crisis and the broader ecological crisis, the collision between the way we’ve organized the global economy and the natural world.
I will say that the pandemic has actually accelerated those changes, and I think that the pandemic is also driving people to take these sustainability factors into account in the planning for a post-pandemic world. So that the emergency response, the recovery plans, will drive us toward a better world. That’s what people want, and our findings show very clearly that these attitudes have changed dramatically all around the world.
Q. Goode: So what I’m hearing you say, I think, is that you’re really thinking about this long term. That even if some of these investments and the companies themselves are maybe weakened in the short-term because of the pandemic, you’re willing to make that investment toward sustainability for that timeline in the future when we actually are post-COVID-19. And if I’m hearing that correctly, when you look at that, what is that timeline for you? Are you looking five to seven years from now? When do you think that we reemerge from this?
A. Yeah, well, first of all, we don’t know and no one knows. My guess is that the maturation and strength of the global biotech community has advanced so much that there’s a real chance there — that we will be pleasantly surprised with the arrival of efficacious and safe vaccines sooner than the experts have told us to expect. I’m not an expert on that, but we listen to those who have been following it and it’s very impressive what these groups have done. Of course, it will take as much time as it’ll take, because you have to do the large safety studies and they take some time. But in any case, whenever we emerge, I think that these trends are producing a new world. And we think that it’s the biggest business and investing opportunity in history.
Q. Goode: You’ve been clamoring for the public to pay attention to climate change for decades now. But as your own report highlights, people are more concerned about the coronavirus than they are about climate change. The younger groups care a little bit more about climate change, but everyone else, right now the attention has totally shifted. How do you propose that people essentially care about these dual crises right now? And it’s not just a dual crisis, of course — we’re experiencing a new civil rights movement. We’ve talked about inequality. I guess I wonder if climate change is destined to always take a backseat even as all of these events are intertwined. How do you propose to keep climate change in the center of attention?
A. Well, first of all, I would be surprised if the COVID-19 pandemic was not the principal concern occupying most people’s thoughts right now, because of the obvious consequences and the fact that in some countries — including the U.S. — the case numbers are still rising. We had a botched reopening, and the predictable consequences are unfolding now.
But I don’t see it as a competition for attention and awareness. I see it as a natural relationship, and I do think that there’s some real evidence of a broader general awakening. I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish on this point, but if you think back a few years, the awakening to the incredible injustice that was suffered for so long by the LGBTQ community led to a startling change in the demand for marriage equality and for an end to discrimination in employment, recently codified in a Supreme Court decision. And the gains of the LGBTQ community are being consolidated. They’re not going away.
Similarly, the gender equity demands of the last few years are being consolidated. One magazine referred to our present time as the “Great Awokening,” and I won’t necessarily endorse that glib phrase, but I think that it does carry some meaning. No kidding.
I think that the general lesson is that when scientists are setting their hair on fire, so to speak, to try to warn us of something, it’s best to pay attention. When both the pandemic and the climate crisis reveal for all to see the incredible injustices suffered by communities of color. I mean, how in God’s name could the majority in our country — and I include myself in this indictment — how could we have tolerated for so long a situation where the earnings gap between Black workers and white workers is the same now as it was 50 years ago? How could we tolerate the fact that the net worth of the so-called typical Black family, compared to the net worth of a typical white family, it takes 11.5 Black families to make up the net worth of one white family? How could we have looked the other way and not been more focused on changing that?
Now, the general awakening to these factors, driven home by George Floyd’s murder and by the horrible excess death rate from COVID-19, has driven a more general awareness — not only of the need to put the fighting of these injustices at the center of our country, but it has also sensitized people to the fact that the climate scientists are growing ever more dire in their warnings. And the business community is seeing that the opportunity for more sustainable profits and more job creation, by going in a green recovery direction, is the way we should go.
Q. Goode: As one of a few people living who have served in the Senate and at the highest levels of the country’s government, and also at incredibly high executive levels, how would you propose that U.S. leaders fix the problem we’re in right now? How would you be addressing the coronavirus pandemic?
A. Well, as luck would have it, we have elections on a regular basis and they often present an opportunity for fundamental change. I’m a recovering politician now and don’t want to get into the politics of the situation. But when there is a need for significant change that people are broadly aware of, it can sometimes lead to results in elections that lead to a change in policies. But these changes need to take place around the world. And ultimately when business is on board, when business makes a fundamental change, when investors make a fundamental change, when people generally are demanding that fundamental change, then it becomes much more likely that governments will change the policies to facilitate the emergence of this new, more sustainable, more prosperous, fair, healthy, just world. I see it coming.
Q. Goode: It sounds to me like you’re saying you see this change being led by the private sector.
A. It requires both. It requires policy changes. We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels. We need to incorporate sustainability values in the ways in which we measure and compensate for value in our economy. Investors need to respond to the new realities. And businesses already are beginning to respond to this new reality.
Q. Rogers: It struck me as you were talking about that — as you called it — glib phrase the “Great Awokening” that while people are more and more aware of these things that need to get changed, at the same time, there’s more resistance. Some of that is even driven by overt disinformation via the internet, some by the politics that you say you’re recovering from. Can the change you’re talking about overcome that kind of resistance?
A. No worthwhile change comes without a struggle. It’s true that the resistance is often ferocious, but those resisting have the burden of the reality against them. Where social media is concerned, we’re even beginning to see some changes there. Look at the changes on Twitter and even Reddit. Just recently, look at the pressure that Facebook is under to change its atrocious practices. On the positive side, look at the leadership that many tech companies have provided. Look at the demands from employees, at some other tech companies that haven’t yet changed enough, where their employees are demanding that they change. People want to work for a place where they make a good income, but they also want to work for a firm that is helping to make the world a better place. They want to tell their friends and peers and family that it’s not just about money; they’re helping in a more general way to move the world in the right direction.
Two-thirds of Americans now support the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a dramatic change in just a few weeks. When you match that with the technology drivers, with cost reduction curves and sustainability technologies that are so impressive — whether solar batteries or EVs or hundreds of sustainability technologies that are not as well known — that is putting the wind at our backs. When you match that with this research, that those investors who fully integrate ESG factors are getting better results, then, yeah, I think it supports our pretty strong belief that the world is moving into a sustainability revolution.
We started Fix with the goal of connecting people and connecting the dots among issues. This pandemic hasn’t changed that ambition. What it has done is make us think harder about how to connect, and helped us redefine what connection really means.
For example, instead of bringing Fixers together for scrumptious meals or thought-provoking retreats, as we’ve been able to do over the last couple of years, we’ve tried a few new things these past months. Like sending meticulously crafted care packages, and following them up with virtual toasts. Or bringing Fixers into conversation with each other virtually to spark new ideas. Or making calls to each and every member of our Grist 50 network — 250 Fixers and growing — to see how they’re holding up, what they’re working on, and how we can help.
I’ve had discussions over the last month with a solar entrepreneur, an Indigenous chef, the founder of a geothermal company, a transportation advocate, a textile upcycler, a community activist in the Midwest, an agitator in the South, a visionary artist, and on and on — all working toward a better future. It’s given me comfort and inspiration during this time. “As long as you are not alone,” a colleague once wrote, “there is always hope.” Here’s to all the Fixers in our universe for the creative ideas, honest conversations, and meaningful connections they bring to the table. I’m looking forward to the connections still to come.
As the equity program manager for Portland, Oregon, and a self-described “fan” of government, Desirée Williams-Rajee ensured that communities of color had a voice when the city designed its climate policy. Now a racial-equity consultant, she works with government agencies grappling with COVID-19 and responding to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My belief is that equity work is about reclaiming … human connection,” said Williams-Rajee when we profiled her for the 2020 Grist 50. Since then, she noted in a recent interview, “COVID-19 has been a reminder of how interconnected we all are.” Times of crisis can open the public sector to new ways of thinking, Williams-Rajee says. She adds that the challenges inherent in this moment include making solutions sustainable, ensuring that the most impacted communities are in on decisions, developing a clear vision, and of course, finding funding. Despite those obstacles, she says she is “in a place of hope.” Read our interview with Williams-Rajee to learn more of her thoughts on equity and infrastructure.
2. Your reading list
On the topic of connection, you need look no further than, well, anything Wendell Berry has ever written, whether poems, essays, or fiction. At the end of each day, my wife and I have been reading aloud his novel Jayber Crow. Like all of his novels, the book is set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, in this case tracing the life of Jayber, the town’s barber for 32 years. And like all of Berry’s work, the book is about the importance of ties — to the land, to other living beings, and to each other. How breaking these bonds can lead to loneliness and disharmony; how “progress,” rootliness, and industrialization have pulled us apart. Salvation, Jayber finds, lies in committing to community and connections. I don’t want to give the full story away, but suffice to say, I look forward to a visit to my local barber shop, when it’s truly safe out there.
3. Your pick-me-up
Fixers are fixing to improve national policy. Two Fixers — Catherine Flowers and Varshini Prakash — are part of the headline-making effort to refine Joe Biden’s climate platform. They are members of the Biden-Sanders Task Force, which has released ambitious recommendations that would put the nation on a path to carbon-zero power by 2035 — 15 years sooner than the date ol’ man Joe originally had in his sights.
That is one scrappy state. Vermont has passed a first-in-the-nation food-waste ban. Yep, you read that right: no more cherry pits or rutabaga peels in the trash. The move is intended to save landfill space and reduce production of that dastardly greenhouse gas methane.
Still life with organic produce. A Seattle art gallery that was set to open in April is becoming a BIPOC organic food bank instead. Owner and “perpetual pivoter” John Wesley Sargent will partner with local farms and co-ops to provide food and resources to those in need. His ultimate goal is “making sure that every single citizen of Seattle has clean water and organic food.”
Boom or bus. How will public transit change after COVID? We asked five Fixers for their take. From ensuring equity in the “bike boom” to investing in high-speed rail to staggering commute times, the road ahead is full of promising ideas.
We’ll always have Paris … in this newsletter. Astute readers might notice that we frequently mention transit-related news from the City of Light. We can’t help it! We’re a little bit (OK, a lot) in love with the policies of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose recent reelection means she can move ahead with pledges like removing 72 percent of on-street parking spaces in the city. That’s a cool 60,000 spots that no Renault or Citroën will ever see again.
4. Your weekend plans
It’s summer. It’s hot. (Or so my East Coast colleagues tell me … here in the Pacific Northwest, I wore a wool hat to walk along the beach yesterday.) It’s time for a seasonal treat: easy-as-heck homemade popsicles.
No need to spring for a plastic mold, or buy a bunch of throw-away little cups; you can make DIY popsicles in an ice-cube tray, a muffin tin (they’ll be nice and round), a loaf pan — you can even just pop a stick through the top of your favorite single-serving (we won’t judge) yogurt container, throw it in the freezer and call it good.
Take a country where Indigenous leaders are killed for defending their lives and lands, where constitutionally protected rights are often violated for the sake of development and mining, and where people are left in precarious conditions due to unrecognized territories and a far-right president who publicly supports the expansion of mining and agribusiness at whatever cost.
Then add a global pandemic, and the results are damaging.
This is Brazil today.
The country ranks second in the world for COVID-19 cases and deaths, just behind the United States. But it’s Brazil’s Indigenous communities that have been hit especially hard, inviting reluctant attention to the grave risks a global virus can have on communities already fighting for their rights, lives, and lands.
It’s not just the number of people who have died from COVID-19 that has sparked concern across the country, it’s Brazil’s political landscape.
Brazil has a population of 209.5 million people, including 900,000 Indigenous people from 305 different tribes. The country has recorded 65,487 deaths from the virus, with 426 Indigenous people, including chiefs, elders, and knowledge carriers, among them. According to Emergência Indígena, which has been tracking the pandemic in Indigenous communities across Brazil, there are more than 11,385 confirmed COVID-19 cases amongst Indigenous people to date.
But this story is not about numbers, it’s about names.
Amidst cries for support and supplies for especially isolated communities dealing with an influx of cases, there have been criticisms against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who initially dismissed COVID-19 as “a little flu,” and the impact of his ongoing stance against the rights of Indigenous people.
In most recent news, Bolsonaro has tested positive for the very virus he has downplayed for months.
Some government supports, such as personal protection kits provided by the country’s ministry of health, are only available for those who live on officially demarcated reserves. Yet demarcation of Indigenous territories is a complicated and contentious process that the president has all but halted in his time in office.
More than 120 traditional territories claimed by Indigenous groups have not yet received government recognition.
Bolsonaro campaigned on pledges to stop the demarcation of Indigenous territories and sell off large parts of the Amazon rainforest to mining companies and agribusiness. And so far, he has kept those promises.
Prominent Indigenous leaders and land defenders have been killed over the past year as critics of the government claim farmers, illegal loggers, miners, and hunters feel emboldened and protected by Bolsonaro’s pro-industry and anti-Indigenous attitude.
“Less than a million people live in these places, isolated from true Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs,” Bolsonaro wrote. “Together we will integrate these citizens.”
Bolsonaro’s executive order was a flagrant violation of the 1988 federal constitution, especially Article 231, which expresses the rights of Indigenous peoples to their traditional territories. The move was stopped by Congress and the Supreme Court, but it still sent a message that Indigenous rights stood in the way of industrial development.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) is the federal government body responsible for the demarcation of Indigenous lands in Brazil. Once in power, Bolsonaro’s government deposed FUNAI’s president and put a federal police deputy in his place, Marcelo Xavier da Silva, a man with strong ties to agribusiness who once worked on a contentious congressional inquiry that attacked the very organization he is now charged with running.
The government also put former evangelical missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias (who worked for at least a decade converting Indigenous peoples as a part of the organization Missão Novas Tribos do Brasil, or MNTB) in charge of protecting isolated Indigenous people.
According to Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), people who have not received government recognition are not eligible for government support, forcing many to leave their homes and travel to nearby cities for supplies, and placing them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
The organization has also tracked cases where health ministry officials have brought the virus to these isolated communities when they visited.
While Indigenous people continue to organize to provide supplies where needed and spread awareness of the health crisis online, the global pandemic is forcing the world to face much bigger questions than, “How do we contain this virus?” It is forcing us to ask: How did we get here? Who has been the most affected? And what are we going to do about it?
This week, APIB launched an official plan, including general guidelines for local and regional planning to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, collaborating with activists, artists, journalists, politicians, and community members. APIB, leaders like Guajajara, and independent media outlets like MidiaNinja and MidiaIndiaOficial continue to feature community voices, as well as Brazilian celebrities and influencers who have added their voices to the demand for action.
I am managing director of National Observer’s First Nations Forward series. I have been living in Brazil for the better part of the last year. I was meant to return to Canada at the beginning of the summer, but COVID-19 made travel nearly impossible. Living here, while continuing to report on stories of Indigenous-led stewardship in First Nations across B.C., I have come to understand how questions around rights, recognition of territories, and struggles for self-determination are connected from the north to the south and concern the whole planet.
Indigenous peoples occupy 5 percent of the world’s territory and yet protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. If the Amazon on fire, increased deforestation, and a global health pandemic haven’t woken the world up to the importance of these issues, I’m not sure what will.
Is there a way to re-engage people who used to be active in our online climate group but don’t seem as eager to participate lately?
— Regretting Ever Playing Leader, Yikes
A. Dear REPLY,
2020 has brought a host of new preoccupations to the average Fretting Hour (which, by my account, occurs anywhere between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.). Here we go: pandemic, pandemic-driven recession, complete inability of government to actually address pandemic, resurgence of pandemic, police brutality, further violence stemming from response to protests against police brutality, the increasingly apparent incompetence and cruelty of the country’s leaders, the impending opportunity to elect new, ostensibly more competent and less cruel leaders, and all the aforementioned factors that might make that opportunity go horribly, horribly wrong.
So yes, climate change remains one of the biggest upcoming and ongoing threats out there, but if I’m being honest, trying to get people to devote significant mental attention to any one issue is a pretty crazy-making venture at the moment.
But I commiserate with you. I can offer the perspective of someone whose full-time job it is to write/think about climate change — and yet even I find myself increasingly distracted by all the other catastrophes going on. And that’s to say nothing of the later-in-the-night fretting I do over big personal decisions, like whether I should move to be closer to family or if I want to procreate in the future.
It’s even possible that the current shitshow that is 2020 might actually attract some new members to your group. A conversation with a colleague recently brought up the possibility that there are millions of people out there who are just starting to awaken to extremely grave societal ills and urgently, passionately want to do something about them. They just don’t know what to do. They’re logged onto Twitter chomping their nails feverishly clicking “join” on a hundred new listservs and petitions and fundraisers, and waiting anxiously to be told what their next action should be.
That leads me to my next point: Let’s talk about what your “climate group” is doing — I’m curious. I’m guessing that you mean a group that organizes protests, or petitions local lawmakers to support pro-climate bills, or pitches in on election campaigns or fundraisers for pro-climate local candidates. Those are all really, really useful things and I applaud you for doing them! A million times over! (If your climate group is not doing any of those things, um, well, I recommend that you start.)
But not all pro-climate causes are equally enticing — or urgent, one might argue. If your climate group is doing things that might be considered tone-deaf right now, like — at the risk of denigrating any of these causes — going balls-deep on anti-plastic campaigns, tree-planting, or recreating Gal Gadot’s Imagine video but for climate change somehow, you might be alienating your members. That’s because it’s very hard to connect any of those things to the more urgent-seeming crises at bay. Your absentee group mates might be reading your emails and thinking: This seems off.
Maybe you’re offended that I even suggested that your climate group is focusing on the wrong things, i.e., straws, although I’m very aware that the fossil fuel industry is extremely hot on keeping the production of unnecessary plastics in full force. And I get it — I’m sorry! I just had to bring up that possibility. But if your members are still checked out even though you’re focusing on the most urgently relevant things, it might be for a couple of other reasons.
One possibility is that you’re not doing a great job selling your efforts. Again, I write things on the internet for a living, and I put a lot of effort into thinking about whether people will actually want to click on and read what I write. It’s hard when the internet is filled up with billions of new words every day, and let’s say half a million of those are interesting and/or intelligent. (Ha.) You want to engage people by immediately grabbing hold of what they care about and waving it energetically in front of them, ah, metaphorically speaking. Look at some of your recent emails: Are they snappy? Skimmable? Action-oriented? If you’re not already looking at analytics, now is a great time to start.
Another possibility for your group’s recent apathy is that you’re not selling why your group’s efforts are important! “Because they just are” or “because you should care” isn’t enough; we should be doing so many things to fix and rebuild a very flawed society, there are so many important cracks and leaks in that society. I mean, really it might be more of a tear-down job at this point, but that aside… you need to state, specifically, what you need your group members’ help to accomplish. It’s like any relationship: Ask for what you want! If they can’t give it to you, they’ll say no, and maybe that relationship is over, or maybe it’s on a break and they’ll come back when they’re ready.
In a world full of so many fires, I completely understand the feeling of working hard to put out one particular (and very important) blaze and worrying that you’re increasingly alone doing it. But you’re not! The challenge is really just making sure that your efforts against climate change acknowledge and incorporate the reality in which climate change is happening — one that is very unjust, but doesn’t have to be forever.
As the U.S. enters another month of sustained protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, organizers are working to turn the protests’ energy into legislative action. This week the Movement for Black Lives, a nationwide coalition of Black organizations formed in December 2014, released a summary of a new legislative proposal that aims to defund police police forces around the country and give funding and support to Black communities looking to create their own models of public safety. They’re calling it the BREATHE Act.
“We crafted this bill to be big,” said Gina Clayton Johnson, the executive director of Essie Justice Group and one of the act’s creators, during a virtual announcement event reported by New York Magazine’s The Cut. “We know the solution has to be as big as the 400-year-old problem itself.”
The proposal is divided into four sections that each address different approaches to sustainable public safety: The first two sections call for the divestment of federal resources from policing and incarceration, as well as federal grant programs for alternative community-led approaches to non-punitive public safety.
The proposal’s third section, however, demonstrates that environmental justice is central to the proposal’s vision. It calls for the creation of a grant that will fund solutions for environmental justice issues that affect Black communities around the country. The grant would fund “clear, time-bound plans” for states to ensure universal access to clean water and air that satisfies Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. The section also calls for for the creation of clear state plans to meet 100 percent of their electricity demand with “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” Funding for community-owned sustainable energy projects would be subsidized by the grant. Disaster preparedness would also be prioritized.
Environmental justice often intersects with other public health issues for Black and brown communities. In recent months, for example, it’s become clear that Black and Latino communities in the U.S. suffer higher mortality and hospitalization rates from the novel coronavirus. This May, Democrats in Congress introduced the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act to look at the connection between air pollution and disproportionate COVID-19 outcomes for these communities.
The BREATHE Act has not yet been translated into actionable congressional legislation, but Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley both expressed their support for the proposal during a virtual meeting this week.
“The BREATHE Act is bold…. It pushes us to reimagine power structures and what community investment really looks like,” Tlaib said during a recent call with activists. “We can start to envision through this bill a new vision for public safety. One that protects and affirms Black lives.”
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to make use of one of nature’s tricks for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with rock and rain. As rain washes away tiny particles of rock, newly exposed minerals bind with carbon, transforming carbon dioxide into new chemicals. It’s a simple combination of basic chemistry and erosion.
We can speed the process up by speeding up erosion, crushing tons and tons of rock and spreading it across the earth’s surface, if we had the money to do it and a vast area where inhabitants don’t mind trucks covering everything with a layer of rock dust once a year. Farms are the most likely candidate for such a massive undertaking, because farmers already do some incidental advanced weathering as a byproduct of “liming”, where they apply crushed limestone to fields when their soils become too acidic.
A paper just published in Nature provides the most detailed calculation to date of just how much carbon this technique, known as enhanced weathering, could capture and how much it would cost. Deploying the practice worldwide could remove 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year — about a third of what the United States emits each year — and would run between $60 and $200 per ton of carbon to apply all that rock dust on fields, varying by country. It would be cheaper in places like Indonesia and India that have better conditions for weathering (warm, seasonally wet weather), and low labor and energy costs. The countries with the greatest potential to deploy enhanced weathering are, the researchers note, “coincidentally the highest CO2 fossil fuel emitters (China, USA, and India).”
One of the scientists involved in the study, James Hanson, the climate Cassandra and Columbia University climatologist, said in an email that he became interested in weathering because it can trap carbon for thousands of years. Hansen said other approaches, “such as reforestation, are important, but require management to assure that the carbon sink is maintained.”
The researchers estimate that if the United States spread rock dust on half the country’s farmland it could capture 420 million tons of carbon dioxide, at an annual cost of $225 for every American, or $176 for every ton of carbon. That’s a higher price tag than some other solutions. Building solar farms, for instance, currently cuts emissions at a rate of less than $40 per ton. But because the world is failing to slash emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that we will need to use “negative emissions,” expensive techniques to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change.
Once upon a time, many moons ago — i.e., back in April — Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders agreed to exit the race and join forces with his mortal frenemy Joe Biden to help the former vice president take the White House. The two announced they were putting together a series of joint “unity” task forces with experts from each of their camps to shape the Democratic platform, including a task force on climate change.
After a few months of weekly Zoom meetings and conference calls, the task forces sent their final recommendations to the Democratic National Committee for its consideration on Wednesday.
On climate change, the two candidates and their supporters had some serious divides to bridge. Over the course of nine months of primary debates, Biden touted his plan to build 500,000 electric vehicle chargers and put his faith in American exceptionalism while Sanders bashed fossil fuel executives and promoted the Green New Deal. To try to find a middle ground, Sanders appointed Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, and Catherine Flowers, the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, to the joint climate task force. Biden selected former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, and former Biden policy advisor Kerry Duggan, along with two members of Congress.
From the preamble to the task force’s policy recommendations, it’s clear that Sanders’ camp had a meaningful influence on the platform. Titled “Combating the climate crisis and pursuing environmental justice,” the introduction immediately namechecks communities that have suffered the most from the effects of climate change, like Houston, Texas and Paradise, California, and quickly moves on to those that have long suffered from racist policies and pollution, like Flint, Michigan and the Navajo Nation. The platform goes on to work justice and equity into pretty much every bullet point, from eliminating legacy pollution like Superfund sites, to creating union jobs in clean energy that reflect the full diversity of the country. While the Green New Deal is never mentioned, traces of it are all over the place.
Prakash wrote about her experience on the task force on Twitter on Wednesday, explaining that she had two goals: to push Biden to increase his ambition on climate change in terms of timelines and benchmarks, and to place environmental and climate justice at the heart of all of Biden’s climate policies.
On Prakash’s first goal, there was certainly some success. Previously, Biden’s climate policies centered around achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2050. The task force shaved 15 years off that goal. It also came up with a slew of closer, more specific benchmarks: Within five years, make all school buses electric and help spur retrofits of 4 million buildings by unlocking private sector funding and setting efficiency standards, and by 2030, zero out the carbon footprint of all new buildings.
As for Prakash’s second goal, she applauded Biden’s commitment to putting environmental justice at the heart of his climate policy agenda by “directing federal funds to disadvantaged communities, ending pollution & toxic waste sites, and creating mitigation strategies and rebuilding from disaster in just and equitable ways.”
“We are leaving these discussions with policies that, if implemented, will make Joe Biden’s climate agenda far more powerful, equitable, and urgent than where his plans were just weeks ago,” she tweeted.
Naturally, there is evidence of compromise throughout the task force’s plan. While the document endorses repealing fossil fuel subsidies and addressing methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure, it does not say anything about fracking, and the only pipeline that it mentions is the “diverse pipeline of talent” the government should help create to fill good clean energy jobs. However, it does urge the Democratic party to explicitly fess up to “historic wrongs” perpetrated against Native American tribes with respect to infrastructure (i.e. pipelines), and to commit to a more robust and meaningful consultation process with tribes across all federal agencies. To do so, the task force recommends conducting a “Tribal Needs Assessment” to understand how to support more than 500 tribes in the energy transition.
Primary season left the Democratic party deeply divided, and some on the climate left will inevitably remain skeptical that a Biden administration will be ambitious enough. This document is by no means the scripture of climate policy. But Biden has proven to be pliant, allowing himself to be pushed further and further on climate since first announcing his candidacy, and this experiment in intra-party negotiation and compromise offers some evidence that the trend could continue.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is officially dead as of Sunday, and the Supreme Court delivered another blow to the troubled Keystone XL Pipeline on Monday. While the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s demise was a decision made by its developers, and Keystone’s impairment a judicial matter, both outcomes are directly tied to the same ongoing battle over a federal permit that helps developers to fast-track pipeline construction called Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12). Its fate could have far-reaching consequences for pipeline development all over the country.
NWP 12 is a streamlined permitting process that’s been around since the 1970s and is designed to get infrastructure built faster. It is considered a “general” permit, in that it gives blanket permission for certain standard construction activities that have been deemed to have minimal impact to rivers, streams, and wetlands. Under the Clean Water Act, pipelines must obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to cross U.S. waters. Pipeline developers can either apply for a Clean Water Act permit for their specific project, which requires extensive environmental assessment and a public comment period, or, they can seek permission to use NWP 12. NWP 12 allows them to skip that public, comprehensive review process if they can demonstrate to the Corps that the project will result in only “minimal adverse environmental effects.”
Back in April, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ruled that neither Keystone XL nor any other pipeline could use NWP 12 until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed the streamlined permit program’s impacts on endangered species. The Army Corps appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit and asked the court to allow pipelines to continue to use NWP 12 in the meantime in order to mitigate uncertainty for developers. When the Ninth Circuit said the Army Corps couldn’t keep using NWP 12, the agency appealed to the Supreme Court. On Monday, the Supreme Court partially reversed the district court’s decision, temporarily reinstating the permit for all projects except Keystone while a full appeal of the decision moves forward in the Ninth Circuit.
While the Supreme Court’s decision was mostly a victory for the industry, it was not enough to save the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). In a press release announcing its decision to cancel the project one day before the Supreme Court order came down, Dominion Energy wrote that the district judge’s ruling had “created an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays for ACP,” and that even if the Supreme Court lifted the injunction on NWP 12 — as it ultimately did one day later — that would not decrease uncertainty enough to justify investing more shareholder money in the project.
The NWP 12 program can be used for any kind of “utility line,” including phone, broadband, and electrical transmission cables. Jared Margolis, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Grist that the Corps didn’t start issuing it for major oil and gas pipeline projects until 2012. Now, pretty much every pipeline developer relies on it. Environmental groups have been arguing for years that NWP 12 was never meant to be used to streamline such large and environmentally risky infrastructure projects and that pipelines like Keystone should have to undergo full and transparent environmental assessments.
“We need to go back to this individual permit process where there’s a real analysis, there’s public input, there’s everything that the law requires of these types of projects to make sure that they’re not harming the environment or endangered species or anything else,” said Margolis.
One of the problems environmental groups have with NWP 12 is that it does not account for cumulative impacts on the environment. In order to use NWP 12, developers must demonstrate that their pipeline will not result in more than half an acre of loss of U.S. waters — but it allows them to treat each water crossing separately, even if one pipeline crosses the same river in three different places. There’s no limit on the overall water loss associated with a project and no required assessment of the cumulative environmental impact of its water crossings.
The NWP 12 permit program has to be reissued by the Corps every five years, and when it came up for reauthorization in 2017, groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club urged the agency to let it expire or amend it to make sure that pipelines aren’t pushed through without a public input process. But weighed against the Trump administration’s agenda to clear regulatory hurdles for oil and gas projects, those cries were not heeded.
Last summer, a number of the same environmental groups sued the Army Corps of Engineers for approving the Keystone XL Pipeline’s use of NWP 12 and formally challenged the Corps’ 2017 reauthorization of the permit. This lawsuit is what led to the district judge’s decision to revoke all NWP 12 permits for pipelines in April. While the groups claimed that the Corps’ reissue of NWP 12 violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, the judge ruled only on the last one. The court found that before the Corps reauthorized the permit program, it should have consulted with federal wildlife agencies to assess what impact the NWP 12 program as a whole has on endangered species or critical habitat. The Corps had done this kind of high-level consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2012 but decided it wasn’t necessary to do so again in 2017.
The problem, Margolis said, is that the 2012 analysis is outdated because it’s based on data from before when the Corps started using the permit for major pipelines. “And so they can’t say, well, what we did in 2012 should be good enough now.”
Though most pipelines will be able to continue using NWP 12 for the time being, green groups applauded the Supreme Court’s decision to exclude Keystone XL from NWP 12 as another “nail in the coffin” for the pipeline. However, a spokesperson for TC Energy, the Keystone XL developer, told E&E News that the company remains committed to completing the pipeline.
Nature has been showing up in places you never expected. Dinosaurs roaming Times Square? A bunch of Lime scooters abandoned in a lake? According to the internet, the appropriate response to these situations is “Nature is healing.”
The memes started in earnestness. As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on our lives earlier this year, people were suddenly stuck in their homes. With fewer cars on the move, streets were eerily quiet, and city dwellers started hearing birdsong. This lockdown period, now dubbed the “Anthropause,” temporarily improved air pollution around the world. Seismologists said that the absence of traffic quieted the Earth’s upper crust. Even carbon dioxide emissions took an unexpected dip. People latched onto reports of wild boars taking to the medians of Barcelona, goats commandeering the streets of a Welsh town, and a thousand monkeys brawling in a formerly touristy city in Thailand.
“It’s one of the COVID memes for sure,” said Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist and the author of the bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. “I think it pretty quickly became this sort of parody version of itself.”
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Some stories in this genre were fake. Dolphins, for example, did not “return” to the canals of Venice. Elephants never passed out drunk from drinking too much corn wine in the tea garden of a Chinese village.
These images were often captioned “nature is healing, we are the virus.” That rings of environmentalism’s dark side. The idea that human suffering is good for the planet is reminiscent of what’s been called “ecofascism,” or using oppression for purposes like climate action or conservation. In the 20th century, conservationists used this logic to justify eugenics and anti-immigration policies.
The earliest known “nature is healing” meme pushed back on this rhetoric with irony. On March 26, Ronnie Becker, a student in Minneapolis, shared an image of rideshare scooters submerged in a lake. She posted it because she was “annoyed” by the spread of “we are the virus,” and also happened to hate the scooter-share business, she told BuzzFeed News.
It went viral, and suddenly everyone and your grandma was using “nature is healing” to explain the abundance of squirrels in their local park. It became a stock phrase that got repeated in different contexts, from commentary on city living to pop culture references. McCulloch compared the meme to the comic-strip-style image where a dog sips its coffee inside a room engulfed in flames, saying “This is fine.” It tends to be used in situations where things clearly aren’t fine — rather, they’ve gotten so bad that your brain turns off, unable to grapple with the reality you’re facing.
“Nature is healing” is a way of injecting a little levity into the situation. People are stuck at home, bored, and “trying to find some ironic optimism in this objectively pretty terrible situation,” McCulloch said.
Perhaps the proliferation of fake stories about nature rebounding was also a way of finding hope while dealing with a pandemic that arrived during a slow-burning ecological crisis. (People got very upset at the fact-checkers, after all.)
“I was really, really touched by the fact that people wanted so much for there to be dolphins in the canals in Venice,” said Alan Weisman, the author of The World Without Us. The book, a bestseller from 2007, imagines how the natural world would take over what we’ve built, pulling down bridges and submerging cities, if humans disappeared one day with a snap. “Say a Homo sapiens-specific virus — natural or diabolically nano-engineered — picks us off but leaves everything else intact,” Weisman mused in the book.
As governments ordered people indoors this spring, Weisman started getting a lot of emails. People were telling him about bird songs, animal sightings, and empty streets. “So much of these communications were wistful,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, isn’t this lovely?’” He says that people are desperate for a connection to the outdoors, and some respite from the sounds of the city. “It’s like we have some genetic memory of how nature once was before we started to trash it or maul it,” he said. “And something in us just misses it so much.”
Then he started getting a barrage of press requests asking him to talk about his book coming to life, first from news outlets in Italy, and later Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, and more. “It wasn’t that I had the realization, ‘This looks like The World Without Us,’ but everyone was telling me,” Weisman said. He lives in a small town in rural New England, surrounded by forests and sheep farmers. “Nothing really has changed much here,” he said.
As lockdowns gradually lift, bumper-to-bumper traffic and carbon emissions are rebounding. China’s air pollution has overshot pre-pandemic levels, with other countries soon to follow. But it looks like even as smoggy skies return, the “nature is healing” memes are sticking around.
“I’m glad that people are finding ways to keep laughing,” Weisman said, “because laughter is really one of the most healing things that human beings know how to do.”
On a chilly February morning in 2018, the New Mexico State Capitol in Albuquerque bustled with activity as constituents from across the state gathered to testify about an obscure bill. In January, House Bill 161 had been quietly introduced by a pair of Republican legislators, seeking to make it illegal for counties or local municipalities to adopt their own rules on—of all things—seeds.
News of the seed preemption bill rippled quickly through New Mexico’s agricultural and Indigenous communities. At the hearing, agribusiness lobbyists came out in support of the bill, as did a handful of large farm organizations, including the New Mexico Chile Growers Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. Proponents of the bill cited the confusing and burdensome nature of “patchwork” regulations between counties and argued for regulatory consistency throughout the state. Such consistency, they contended, would make New Mexico a friendlier location for farmers and agribusiness, spurring economic growth for the entire state.
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But the hearing room was overwhelmingly filled with the opposition, with more than 100 small-scale farmers, seedkeepers, and tribal members coming out against HB 161. One by one, they asserted that the bill threatened their ability to preserve the foods and seed relatives passed down from previous generations—a tradition integral to their way of life.
“These seeds are our children, and the last time the rights to parent our children were taken from us, we endured five generations of genocidal boarding schools — harm we are still healing from to this day,” testified Beata Tsosie-Peña, a seedkeeper who spoke in opposition to HB 161. Her voice was urgent and emotional. “These seeds are our children, and we will share them with you, freely. We will feed you with their abundance. All we ask is for the sacred trust as caretakers and stewards to be honored and respected.”
From her backyard in the Tewa village of Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, Beata Tsosie-Peña can watch the sun come up over the Madre Tierras and see the trees in the bosque marking the flow of the Rio Grande. Tsosie-Peña grew up farming and says her relationship with her seed relatives began at a young age. For the Tewa people — a linguistic group nested within the Pueblo Indigenous tradition — this relationship is a spiritual foundation, central to every part of Tewa culture, from ceremony to cosmology, medicine, clothing, and song.
But this land, like much of the Indigenous land across the Southwest, has also been made into what Tsosie-Peña calls a “sacrifice zone” by repeated colonization. Just twenty miles from her community, she says a nuclear weapons facility conducts “high explosive testing and detonation and disposal on an almost daily basis, rumbling through our landscape.” As a Tewa woman, Tsosie-Peña says it hurts to see such violence inflicted upon her ancestral lands. “We’re a land-based people … The land is us. What happens to one happens to the other.”
New Mexico seedkeepers like Tsosie-Peña say the very concept of seed preemption is particularly damaging and offensive to the 23 tribes (10.5 percent of New Mexico’s population), many of whom still practice traditional and subsistence agriculture. In her work with Tewa Women United (TWU), a Native women-led group, Tsosie-Peña organizes around an array of environmental issues in her community, including opposing the nuclear weapons facility, building community gardens, and advocating for tribal seed sovereignty.
“Food, for us, comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots,” said Winona LaDuke, environmental activist and Ojibwe tribal member, in a 2011 TEDx talk in Minnesota. The genetic modification and patenting of seeds, she said, was putting those relatives at risk. “I don’t know how to quantify the culture of grief associated with loss of your most ancient varieties.”
Paula Garcia first remembers learning about the concept of seed preemption in 2006, when LaDuke gave a series of presentations in New Mexico. Garcia raises corn and cattle in an arid stretch of the northern part of the state that her family has farmed for generations. “No farmer in their right mind would want to farm here. It’s clay,” she laughs. “But my seed grows here, and I know what it can do. We have seeds that work for this place.” Garcia says these seeds need to be protected, especially from cross-contamination of genetically modified seeds.
Garcia and other New Mexico seedkeepers have been keeping a close eye on the state’s proposed legislation for years. Warned by Indigenous seed sovereignty activists across they country, they knew to scour state bills for anything having to do with seeds, but especially for language around state preemption — a legislative strategy in which a state prevents local governments from enacting their own regulations around a particular issue. They watched state after state quietly pass seed preemption laws — all with similar boiler plate language, all disallowing local municipalities to enact their own seed regulations and ceding such power entirely to the state.
“I was raised with a lot of reverence for the act of growing food and for seedsaving,” Garcia says. That reverence was modeled most profoundly by her grandfather, who — until his death at the age of 96 — would monitor the soil moisture, the amount of winter snow, and the phases of the moon until the conditions were perfect for planting.
Today Garcia, like many residents of Mora County, still practices subsistence agriculture, raising livestock and growing traditional crops for her family. “It still feels very pastoral,” Garcia says. Open fields stretch to the mountains, tractors sputter down the road, and cows are regularly herded across the highway.
The seeds passed down from Garcia’s grandfather, and from his grandparents before that, are of course emotional links to her family. There are other reasons to save seeds, since they have adapted over many generations to thrive in the unique environmental conditions of a specific place. In the arid Southwest, the availability of seeds that can withstand drought conditions is particularly important.
If Garcia’s seeds were to be cross pollinated with other seeds developed with what she considers the “unproven technology” of genetic modification, she says her seeds would be changed, and potentially less viable or resilient. “It’s like messing with creation at a fundamental level,” Garcia says. “What would be lost is that gift from our ancestors. It would be the loss of a relative.” Thus, she says the seeds must be protected at all costs.
As the director of the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), Garcia also advocates on behalf of the state’s acequias — the community-managed, gravity-fed irrigation ditches that have delivered water to small farmers across New Mexico’s arid landscape for more than 300 years. The acequia tradition was brought to the desert Southwest by 16th-century Spanish settlers, though the concept originated in the Middle East.
Acequia members work together to manage and share what is arguably the most valuable resource in this region: water. Each spring, members work together to clean and weed the ditches, in order to ensure equitable water flow to each member. The acequias are fundamentally democratic in their structure, built around community, collaboration, and traditional agriculture practices.
Seedsaving is fundamental to this type of agriculture. So in 2006, the Acequia Association became a founding member of the New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance, created for the purposes of “protecting native seeds from contamination from cross pollination from genetically engineered seeds or GMOs, genetically modified organisms.” The Alliance developed a 30-point seed sovereignty declaration and hosts an annual seed blessing and exchange called Ówînegh Táh. Open to the public, the day-long gathering honors the relationships between people, seeds, and the land.
Twelve years after Ówînegh Táh began, those relationships have been critical in the fight to protect native seeds.
When New Mexico House Bill 161 dropped in January of 2018, Garcia realized it was the seed preemption bill she’d long been warned about. If passed, it would prevent any future local legislative efforts to restrict GMOs or pesticides — as have been implemented in places across the United States, including Jackson County, Oregon and Mendocino County, California.
Seed preemption bills have been passed in at least 29 states, with most of those bills drawing from language crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a group that describes itself as “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism.”
But the Center for Media and Democracy describes ALEC as a “corporate bill mill,” whereby corporations pay to develop model legislation, which is then introduced as actual bills by conservative lawmakers in state legislatures across the country. The ALEC bill pipeline has resulted in a spate of conservative and corporate-friendly legislation that runs the gamut: protections for private prisons, anti-immigrant surveillance, public protest restrictions, and “stand your ground” gun laws.
In the case of seed preemption, state bills have been pushed by ALEC member agribusiness corporations, such as Bayer (which recently acquired Monsanto for $66 billion) and Dupont, in an attempt to get ahead of local efforts to ban GMO seeds. As the producers of these seeds and the chemicals used to grow them, these corporations obviously have a vested interest in having the laws on their side.
At the February 2018 hearing, Paula Garcia stood inside the wood-paneled committee room and held up two ears of her family’s corn, passed down from her great-grandparents, and spoke in support of the seeds. So did Indigenous grandmothers and grandfathers, seedkeepers, nurses, tribal leaders, Black and Latino farmers, environmental organizations, organic and young farmers.
When Tsosie-Peña spoke, she told a Tewa story. “About 10,000 years ago, our ancestors made an evolutionary covenant with the ancestor of our corn mothers. In exchange for giving up our nomadic ways, this seed ancestor also gave up her wildness. And together we co-evolved so that our survival became entwined.” She paused. “There is a spiritual, physical, and emotional bond — a promise that we are still upholding throughout Tewa lands and beyond … We were never meant to regulate and control seeds, but to be in relation with each other.”
After all of the testimony was heard, the nine members of the State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee moved to vote. Since more than half of U.S. states already have seed preemption bills on the books, there was plenty of precedent in its favor. But the pushback from local groups proved strong enough to sway the legislators.
The committee voted 5-4 to table the bill, preventing any forward movement. Relief among the opponents in the audience was audible.
Today the seedkeepers’ vigilance continues — and for good reason. The following year, buried in the 200-page 2019 state budget, a single line aimed to strip local governments of their power to regulate seeds. Again, the seedkeepers mobilized. After New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham received hundreds of calls and petition signatures, she struck the line from the bill.
This past March in Mora County, just as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the United States, the deacon from Paula Garcia’s church came to visit with her. They chatted at a safe distance, and then she sent him off with two pounds of blue corn seed. In exchange, he offered to let her borrow his walk-behind tractor to make some new garden beds.
This is what Garcia loves so much about her community, she says — the continued respectful relationship between people, land, and seeds. She intends to keep fighting for that.
Marguerite Casey Foundation nurtures a movement of low-income families advocating on their own behalf for change. The Foundation supports families strengthening their voice and mobilizing their communities to achieve a more just and equitable society for all.
A commercial for a Dutch e-bike has been censored in France. The offense? Creating a “climate of anxiety” about the car industry. The 45-second ad for Dutch e-bike company VanMoof, titled “Time to Ride the Future,” features a gleaming black car reflecting images of smokestacks, traffic gridlock, and car crashes; the car then melts away into a tar-like goo, revealing the silhouette of a sleek electric bike.
VanMoof shot back at ARPP in a blog post last week, pointing out that all the images reflected in the car’s bodywork were public domain, archival documentary footage. “If everyday footage of real world transport is going to create a ‘climate of anxiety’, maybe someone should try to do something about that world,” VanMoof copywriter Peter Gigg wrote. “Y’know… by offering alternative means of transportation. Or something.”
The decision to block the ad comes after French President Emmanuel Macron announced an $8.8 billion plan to bail out the French car industry after car sales plummeted during global COVID-19 lockdowns. Meanwhile, bike sales are booming; VanMoof’s sales in France from February to April are nearly double that of the same period last year.
Ironically, the ARPP’s decision to censor the VanMoof ad may bring it more attention than it ever would have gotten otherwise. After a spate of articlesaboutthecontroversy, the YouTube video of the ad has 1.8 million views, and counting.
This essay was first published in our semi-weekly newsletter, Climate in the Time of Coronavirus, which you can subscribe to here.
I applied to work at Grist in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, just over a month after being laid off from my last job.
The lost income meant I had moved back in with my parents, who live a few blocks away from my old apartment. All the interviews, including those with Grist employees in my own city, took place over Zoom. To get a decent connection for the first round of interviews, I had to beg family members to keep it down and restart my parents’ router several times. Now I’m the environmental justice fellow at Grist, but I am nevertheless still burrowed in a corner of my room even as I type this essay.
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After good job interviews in the past, I’ve practically floated over New York City’s (formerly) crowded sidewalks to the train station to head back home. Even though the Grist interviews obviously went well and the job involves topics I’m passionate about, the process felt different. There were no handshakes, no in-person introductions. Since accepting, I’ve learned how to execute new procedures through screen-sharing and a lot of detailed instructions over Slack. Leaving work is the equivalent of signing out of an app.
The whole experience isn’t necessarily harder, but it’s different. And it makes work feel a little lonelier.
Granted, I consider myself lucky to be able to work from home while family members who own small businesses either lose money by staying closed or have to risk their own health by opening up again to stay afloat. When I was applying to jobs in that corner of my parents’ house, all I could hear outside on the streets of Queens were sirens. I managed to avoid catching the virus, as far as I know, but it was a reminder just how many in my community were not spared.
Now I’m a few weeks into my new job at Grist. I’ve gotten used to my new remote routine of calling and emailing sources, attending online panels about extreme heat, or the intersection between race and COVID-19. I’ve gotten to know my team through video calls, Slack messages, and phone conversations. It has been a lesson in working together and learning to write in-depth articles about the climate crisis without sitting down with my editor and coworkers in person.
While this can make reporting more difficult, it does mean less commuting, fewer cars on the road, and less flying. As an environmental journalist, it’s hard to object to that. I know that less traveling means not just less COVID transmission, but also less pollution. And I’m grateful to be part of a team that understands the urgency of reporting on pollution, race, and the pandemic (and how those issues are all connected). My COVID experiences are part of what fuels my reporting here at Grist.
But I have to admit, there are times I still miss my crowded subway station.
Electric vehicles (EVs) have a clear environmental advantage over their gas-guzzling counterparts, but when it comes to longevity, the two are in a dead heat. Two hundred thousand miles is considered a good, long run for a car built today, regardless of whether it’s powered by a lithium battery or an internal combustion engine. But if a flurry of recent reports are to be believed, EVs may soon surge ahead in this long-distance competition — not by mere thousands of miles, but by 800,000.
Recently, multiple EV battery makers have announced the imminent arrival of “million-mile” batteries, power packs that supposedly have enough juice to be driven to the moon and back twice. In May, a top executive at General Motors said the company was “almost there” on development of a million-mile battery; in June, Chinese battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) told Bloomberg it was ready to produce batteries that last 1.24 million miles. For months, rumors have swirled that Tesla will soon roll out a million-mile battery on its own. Its 2019 Impact Report, released in early June, certainly reinforced that impression when it emphasized the environmental advantages of a “future Tesla vehicle with a million mile battery.”
But what does the million-mile battery revolution actually mean? According to experts in battery storage technology and the EV market, claims of new batteries that will last a million miles don’t tell us much on their own. How these batteries can be used is going to depend, first and foremost, on how they perform and degrade over their so-called “million-mile” lifespan. Several experts pointed out that true million-mile batteries are likely to outlast whatever cars they’re built for, meaning their arrival could dramatically impact both second-use markets and battery recycling.
“What they’re talking about with million-mile batteries is not so much that an average consumer would put a million miles on the clock,” said Simon Lambert, a co-lead investigator at the Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries project (ReLiB) at the UK’s Faraday Institution, “but that you’d potentially be able to use the battery multiple times, either in vehicular energy storage or grid-connected stuff.”
Most EV batteries on the road today — nearly all of which are lithium-ion batteries employing one of several different chemistries — are warrantied to last 8 to 10 years or 100,000 miles. Some automakers guarantee that the battery will retain at least 70 percent of its original capacity over that period, meaning the car’s range — the distance it can drive before needing to be charged — won’t degrade by more than 30 percent.
In practice, early data suggests today’s EV batteries often last considerably longer with less degradation, said James Frith, an energy storage analyst for BloombergNEF, an clean energy research firm. Tesla’s recent impact report, Frith notes, claims that Model S and X batteries lose less than 20 percent of their original charge capacity after being driven 200,000 miles. A Nissan executive, meanwhile, recently estimated that a Nissan Leaf battery will last about 22 years based on battery degradation data the company is collecting on EVs sold in Europe, according to Automotive News.
“We’re only just getting to the point where we’ve had EVs on the road for 10 years, and we can really see how well those claims of battery life last,” Frith said. “But in general, we see EVs do tend to perform quite well.”
In many cases, EV batteries are already outlasting the cars they are being put in. Hans Eric Melin, the founder of Circular Energy Storage, a market research firm focused on second-use and recycling of lithium-ion batteries, says that it’s “very unusual” for a car to be pulled off the road today because its battery has degraded fully. While this is sometimes the case for heavily-driven electric taxis or Ubers, more often, the battery experienced some sort of electrical malfunction, other components of the EV became worn out, or the car was totaled in a crash.
“For Tesla Uber drivers that might have driven 300 to 400 thousand miles max, they might have to replace the batteries,” Melin said. “But usually, the battery will outlive the car.”
That’s not to say even longer-lived batteries are a bad idea. For one, they could offer a significant advantage for companies operating fleets of taxis or delivery vehicles, which often rack up considerably more miles per vehicle than the average consumer. Even for individual drivers, million-mile batteries could change the calculus around EV ownership. Frith said that many prospective buyers are still worried about how long the battery will last and how the car’s charge capacity and range will decline over time. Batteries warrantied to maintain a good state of health over a million miles— or even a more conservative half-million — would go a long way toward assuaging these concerns. Longer-lived batteries also could be a boon to the emerging used EV market: “If you have a battery that can last a million miles, you’re not going to be worried that after 50,000 to 100,000 [miles] the capacity will be too low to sell to a second market,” Frith said.
What’s more, since batteries take considerable energy to produce, there’s a solid environmental argument for extending their life. In general, companies should be able to claim that million-mile batteries are more climate friendly than their 200,000-mile counterparts because the carbon emissions, resource consumption, and pollution associated with their production will be spread over many more years of use.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about the million-mile batteries companies are working on, including how their performance will decline over time, which has very practical ramifications for what actually driving a million miles on one would be like. All lithium-ion batteries inevitably deteriorate as a result of both cycling (being charged and discharged) and simple calendar aging. This degradation affects both the battery’s energy storage capacity (which dictates the car’s range) and its power capability, or how quickly the battery can discharge energy (and thus accelerate).
“The rate at which each of those things comes down really affects the performance of the battery in terms of second life,” Lambert said.
Lambert suspects that in practice, batteries with a “million-mile” rating might have to be cycled through a series of less demanding applications as they get on in years and miles. Perhaps a million mile battery would spend its first 100,000 miles in a sports car before getting transplanted into an electric cab for the next 400,000, before eventually being repurposed for grid energy storage or backup power systems, less performance-demanding applications. While there is already an emerging industry around collecting and repurposing EV batteries — data shared by Melin shows there are more than 300 megawatt-hours of repurposed EV batteries being used for energy storage throughout Europe in 2020, compared with just 18 megawatt-hours in 2016 — there is still a lot of room for this industry to grow.
However, such reuse could have tradeoffs, says Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the Faraday Institution. Various studies and reports have projected that rapid growth of the EV industry could lead to shortages of key battery metals, like cobalt, in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, it might be better to recycle cobalt-rich batteries sooner rather than delay recovery of this critical material. (While there is no global policy governing end-of-life recycling of EV batteries, the European Union and China are developing policies that hold producers responsible for this waste.)
“I think the cobalt content of the battery will have a real bearing on its value in reuse relative to recycling,” Harper said. The EV industry’s shift toward battery chemistries with less cobalt, he says, means that each battery recycled today potentially could supply enough of the metal to furnish multiple future batteries.
Even if we don’t face a raw materials supply crunch, radically extending the lifespan of EV batteries has implications for how we meet our rising metals demand in the future, notes Linda Gaines, the chief scientist of Argonne National Laboratory’s ReCell Center, which focuses on lithium-ion battery recycling.
“It means you’re not going to get the material back for recycling for a really, really long time,” Gaines said. “Which means, until that happens, you’re reliant on virgin raw materials” that need to be mined from the earth.
And while million-mile batteries might seem to suggest that we’ll need fewer batteries (and thus fewer raw materials) overall, Harper says it’s also possible they could increase battery demand since “often, when we make improvements in efficiency, we just end up consuming more.”
But this is one case where that may be a good thing for the planet.
“If those batteries are displacing higher carbon energy stores” like gasoline, Harper said, “this may just accelerate our transition to decarbonization.”
Utqiagvik sits at the very tip of the United States, saddled against the Arctic Ocean. The Alaska Native Inupiat are set apart from other Indigenous peoples by their subsistence hunting of the bowhead whale. Even today, this unique, centuries-old practice determines the social structure, reflects community values, and supplements the people’s nutrient-rich diet. Nearly all of Utqiagvik’s roughly 5,000 residents, the majority of whom are Inupiat, rely on hunting to support their way of life.
Which is why Harry Brower Jr., an Inupiaq whaling captain and Arctic Alaska mayor, finds it odd when outsiders try to explain things to him.
“I’m reading about this research on bowhead whales in different countries,” he told me one afternoon in February. I met Brower in a mahogany-clad office decorated with relics of his hometown: mounted walrus tusks, paintings of icebergs at sea, and a portrait of Brower and Utqiagvik’s first mayor, Eben Hopson, standing with other community members under “the Gateway to the Arctic” — two huge whale bones arranged in a dramatic arch.
“Here are two words I read about this morning,” he said, pointing to a yellow Post-it on his desk inscribed with the words “hyperboreus” and “parsimonious.” Until he Googled the term, Brower didn’t know what it meant, though he is, in fact, a hyperborean: an inhabitant of the Far North. “(Scientists) all speak a different language,” he said. “They do.”
While serving as mayor of the North Slope Borough, which encompasses eight separate communities and about 10,000 people, Brower also chaired the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The AEWC was formed in 1977, after the federal government, worried about low bowhead whale numbers in the Bering Sea, banned the Inupiat’s subsistence hunt. In response, local whalers conducted their own census, which proved that the whales were being undercounted by the thousands when they swam underneath the ice. The Inupiats’ research resulted in an increased quota. This anecdote is a well-worn story in Utqiagvik — formerly known as Barrow — a point of pride marking a time the Inupiat bested the federal government by showing more precise knowledge of their lands and waters.
In the last two centuries, the climate has been severely altered by human forces. But it has always been changing in some form here, according to the Inupiat. Evidence of past ecosystem shifts is preserved in the great tusks of a mammoth found in the perennially frozen earth and in the oral histories repeated like mantras. The term “climate change” strikes a different tone up here.
Life below 0 degrees F has always been challenging, so the Inupiat story is defined by adaptation. When the mammoth became extinct, the Inupiat adapted. When Western influences crept north, the Inupiat replaced their dogsleds with snow machines, their seal oil lamps with electricity. Today, the Arctic is warming at twice the global average, necessitating a new era of adjustments in life on land and sea. The weaker sea ice endangers hunters, while melting soil threatens homes and city infrastructure. The encroaching sea is eating away at the shoreline.
“What other choice do we have?” Kaare Sikuaq Erikson, an Inupiaq science liaison at the village corporation, said. “People assume that we’re entering this new Arctic, when in reality we have faced adversity for thousands of years. We’ve always been able to adapt and be resilient. This is no different.”
The Arctic — “ground zero for climate change” — is warming more rapidly than the rest of the planet because of a positive feedback loop called Arctic amplification. Rising global temperatures melt the reflective surfaces of snow and ice each year, exposing the darker areas they cover, and the open water and bare ground absorb sunlight, rather than reflect it. This absorbed light creates heat, melting more snow and ice.
Last year, temperatures in Utqiagvik and the state of Alaska broke the federal government’s 120-year record. The shift has happened so quickly in the North that it has outrun the research tools used to measure it. In 2017, it changed so fast that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned scientists that the data was potentially flawed. But the data proved accurate: It was the area’s warmest recorded temperature to date.
“Nobody disputes that things change,” Alaska climatologist Rick Thoman said. “The question is: Why are they changing now? Why aren’t there mammoths on the North Slope now? You can’t answer the question without invoking greenhouse gases. From a Western science perspective, that is the only conclusion.”
The Arctic has lost 641,000 square miles of sea ice in the month of March alone — an area roughly the size of Alaska, according to National Snow and Ice Data Center records. Warmer temperatures also make for a later freeze and an earlier breakup of the ice, shrinking the time frame for spring whaling.
Whaling is the pinnacle of Inupiat culture and the subsistence lifestyle. It takes place in spring and fall, when bowhead whales migrate past Utqiagvik. Inupiat hunters say the whales “give themselves” to worthy hunters, so preparation is year-round and meticulous. Women carefully craft sealskin boats, sewn together with caribou tendon, and whaling crews clean out their ice cellars. Community members store whale and other raw meats in traditional belowground refrigerators dug about 20 feet into permafrost. (Both climate change and urban development are now causing some cellars to thaw, spoiling the meat.)
Each spring, hunters use ice picks to build trails over frozen sea ice. Once the paths are smoothed, they drive snowmobiles several miles to reach open water. At the ice’s edge, they assemble camps, then wait for a bowhead to pass. As soon as a whale is spotted, the crews slide their sealskin boats into the water, and a crewmember attempts to harpoon the animal. When a whale is struck, the captains signal other crews by VHF radio. Other hunters rally to the boat, and everyone pulls the whale onto the ice shore.
But landing a bowhead has become increasingly dangerous: Each whale weighs up to 120,000 pounds and must be pulled onto the less stable sea ice.
Inupiak brothers Jack and Brower Frantz are co-captains on their uncle’s whaling crew, having risen through the ranks since they were teenagers. “When we were growing up, it always seemed like the ice was a constant,” Jack said. “We always knew it was going to be good. The last five years, it just seems like it’s hit or miss.”
Brower Frantz, now 34, remembers the long snowmobile ride to the ice edge, roughly 15 miles from the shore. When he was a teenager, it took more than two hours. “I felt safe driving out there by myself, and I was just a kid,” he said. Now, the ice frequently breaks off within a quarter-mile of the shore, making the past five years the most unsafe he’s experienced.
On land, Utqiagvik residents face a different but related instability underfoot: permafrost thaw. Last summer, Utqiagvik endured the wettest summer on record, with twice as much rainfall as usual. Rain thawed the ground several feet deeper than normal, past the “active” layer of permafrost, which is normally frozen year-round. During freeze-up, the infrastructure built into the usually immobile permafrost — water lines, telephone poles and house pilings — all began pushing up out of the ground. Now, utility poles tilt at worrisome angles, and some homes appear to be teetering on stilts.
Bill Tracey, a local assemblyman who represents Point Lay, a village about 200 miles southwest of Utqiagvik, said the thaw there is so bad that once-narrow crawlspaces under the homes can now hold ATVs.
“The biggest change is that it’s gotten so warm that the permafrost is thawing so far down that all of the pipes are moving a lot and breaking,” said Yves Brower, Harry Brower’s second cousin, who heads the water and sewer department in Utqiagvik. He is acutely aware of the impacts of the changing climate: The week we spoke, nine different water pipes broke, spouting like geysers out of various paved roads.
Not all of Utqiagvik’s pipes are buried in the permafrost. The majority are housed in a utilidor, a 3-mile-long tunnel of water, sewer, and electrical pipes. The utilidor — which cost $800 million, funded almost entirely by oil money — is Utqiagvik’s single most valuable asset. It helped bring the borough into the 21st century. Before it was built, in the 1980s, most residents hauled ice in for water and used “honey buckets” for sewage.
In the late 1960s, the largest oilfield in North America was discovered on Inupiat land, 200 miles east of Utqiagvik. The Inupiat lobbied to form the North Slope Borough. Once they had an incorporated government, they were able to collect property taxes from oil and gas infrastructure built on their land. Ever since, that money has made up the majority of the North Slope Borough’s property tax revenue. Last year, it came to $377 million, borough financial director Sandra Stuermer said.
Oil money not only afforded the North Slope the construction of the kind of infrastructure most of America had enjoyed for the past 100 years, it also provided the funds necessary to maintain it in harsh conditions — conditions exacerbated, ironically, by climate change. Today, the money generated from property taxes pays for all borough operations, including the state and federal bond debts for maintenance of infrastructure in all eight villages.
“Barrow has been lucky,” Yves Brower said. Like most locals, he still refers to his town by the name a British whaling officer gave it in the 1800s, rather than using its Native name, which the village voted to return to in 2016. “We’ve been really wealthy from our oil money.”
For many here, oil money represents opportunity and autonomy. In 2018, the median household income of North Slope Borough residents was $75,431. Many are grateful for the wealth, even as the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel use continue to warm the Arctic. Now, however, the Inupiat are facing yet another challenge: the potential shift of the global economy away from those fossil fuels.
In December, citing climate change, Goldman Sachs announced it would stop financing new oil exploration in the Arctic. A number of other banks followed suit. Mayor Harry Brower penned an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, condemning the investment bank for claiming stakeholder engagement as a core business principle while failing to consult the people of the North Slope.
“The way we see it, caring about the land and wildlife should also mean caring about the Indigenous people who inhabit the land,” he wrote. “We aren’t hungry for oil, we are hungry for progress and understanding from those on the East Coast and beyond. We don’t need your protection or judgment. We need your respect. We need to be treated like fellow Americans.”
Today, as ice conditions worsen, whalers are finding new hunting methods, using technological improvements that help keep hunters safe in the risky work they do to feed their communities. As technology improves, the Inupiat adapt.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has mapped out hunters’ trails to whaling camps, for example, and this research has become an increasingly valued tool for contemporary hunters. Matthew Druckenmiller, who developed it, is now a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. In partnership with whaling crews, the borough and local whale biologist Craig George, Druckenmiller used GPS navigation to map the trails from 2008 to 2011. The project, which was inspired by an elder’s attempt to hand-draw maps years earlier, overlaid GPS trail locations with surveys of ice thickness and with satellite imagery showing the general type of ice and its extent. The resulting maps are distributed throughout the community during hunting season. Whaler Jack Frantz said the maps are regarded as helpful and educational for the younger hunters who haven’t spent years studying ice conditions.
Though Druckenmiller’s student research ended in 2011, he continues the study every year. Whalers use the map data to direct others to their camps to help drag whales onto the ice for butchering. Druckenmiller calls the information “supplemental” to whaling crews’ traditional practices. “To be resilient to the environment relies on having multiple tools at your disposal,” he said. “This is just one of them.”
Previously, hunters sometimes struggled to locate trails in the vast expanse of tundra, said Bernice Oyagak, an Inupiaq whaler. “Now, it’s cool, because (they) send us a map and they say, ‘Here’s their trail,’ ” she said. The map also shows ice thickness, making it “kind of scary to know when you’re driving over a mere two feet of ice,” she said. “But I guess it’s better to know it than to not know it, because you’re hauling back so many pounds of meat. It can be dangerous out there.”
The work of adaptation never ends. Now, as increasingly tough whaling years leave freezers empty, the Inupiat hunt more caribou. With coastal erosion eating away several feet of beach each year, the borough is seeking federal and state bonds to build a $300 million seawall. When the drinking water lagoon become polluted, the city put in place infrastructure to collect snowmelt that now runs through spigots. And now that permafrost thaw and coastal erosion threaten homes, a local housing authority is building adjustable homes on sleds. The Inupiat adapt, bearing the brunt of global climate change — a harbinger of what’s to come in a world that remains stubbornly reliant on fossil fuels.
“We’re taking on all the risks because of these global and environmental changes that are occurring,” Brower said. “We’ve endured the train wreck. The train wreck is here. Everything is spilled all over the ground, and we’re just looking at it and trying to figure out: What do we do now? Who’s responsible? Now we have to deal with it.”
Still, the Inupiat remain undaunted by an unknown future. “We have to to be a survivalist here in the Arctic,” Brower said. “We’re strong. We can survive.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, 2018 Grist 50 Fixer Favianna Rodriguez witnessed firsthand the impact that pollution and racial injustice had on her friends and family. Now an interdisciplinary artist and activist whose most recognizable work includes social justice posters and social media content, she connects the dots between climate change, justice, and an extractive economy — that is to say, one that exploits many for the benefit of a few.
To arrive at policies that can correct these problems, she says, people first need to see that a new path is possible. Art can lead the way. “Art helps us imagine the world in a different way, and it can also illuminate what is not [so easily] seen,” Rodriguez says. “In doing so, art can help us imagine solutions to move forward.”
The organization she leads, the Center for Cultural Power, just released a COVID-19 cultural-strategy activation guide designed to help people build their own artistic narratives to advance social and environmental equity in a time of strife. Rodriguez spoke with Grist about why art matters in a time of social crisis — and how regular people can be more involved.
Her remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Paint the whole picture
As a woman of color who grew up in a polluted neighborhood in East Oakland, so many of my friends had asthma. It was also a food desert. That, combined with other issues like police brutality, anti-immigrant sentiment, and general neglect from the state really shaped my perspective on climate change.
Too often when we talk about climate change, we talk about global warming, or we talk about the loss of species or rising sea levels or the melting glaciers. But in reality, climate change is the result of racial injustice and a system of extraction. I don’t believe we can have a conversation on climate without having a conversation on racial justice and without understanding the roots of how we arrived at a belief system that said it was OK to exploit the earth. And we have to be able to show the full perspective of what that really looks like. That’s what I think artists should do.
Tell a story of justice
In social justice, so much of the way we organize people is through data. But too often that data doesn’t really inspire our hearts, and data is not usually delivered in the form of a story. Right now, there is an opportunity for us to tell a new story. But this new story is not just saying, “We demand this, or we need this.” A new story is also helping to create and visualize that.
That’s why I believe that art is powerful, and it’s also why we created a guide specifically for artists. That’s who we organize. It’s really important to give them tools, especially right now. In the time of COVID-19, we are seeing things exposed that were not exposed before. We’re seeing the fractures in the narrative of capitalism.
When you’re doing work against racism and on gender equity, you’re doing work around climate, too. We need art that actually helps people understand the root causes of climate change. It’s clear that white supremacy and, really, patriarchy are at the root of how we exploit the earth — and it’s clear that we use human labor, often from vulnerable communities, to exploit the earth.
Create new narratives
I encourage artists to follow groups who are really exposing these issues, like Zero Hour. You can also follow the #climatewoke hashtag, and groups like Sunrise Movement that are making the intersection between climate and race explicit.
We need more artists in climate, and I think it’s important for people who care about climate to be committed to telling intersectional stories. Unfortunately, we have too many white spokespeople — when people think about artists engaged in climate, they think of Leonardo DiCaprio. We need to move away from white men holding this narrative and instead help inspire communities of color. And that’s going to be through storytelling; through telling a different kind of story around climate that really speaks to a lived experience that is not just a white one.
In the south of Mexico City, about 100 miles of murky canals wind their way through the Xochimilco neighborhood. Here, the urban sprawl of one of the world’s densest cities yields to a lake region where indigenous farmers have been cultivating a unique system of floating gardens since precolonial times. Called chinampas, these floating gardens were built by the Aztecs to feed a growing population.
Xochimilco became one of the city’s main sources of food, but rapid urbanization in the 1900s meant less land available for farming. In 1985, when an earthquake struck Mexico City, many chinampas were abandoned as people who had lost their homes built shanty towns. Today, only an estimated 20 percent of the approximately 5,000 acres of chinampas are in use, and only 3 percent are used for farming.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mexico, interrupting the industrial food supply in important ways, small farmers have increased production and rehabilitated abandoned chinampas to fill the demand for fresh, local food.
“We’re talking about something that’s 1,000 years old. We have to preserve this,” says Raúl Mondragón on a Zoom call from his home in Mexico City. Mondragón has been recuperating chinampas since 2016, when he founded Colectivo Ahuejote. Now the virus is revealing the strength of this model in the midst of a crisis.
The revival of chinampa farming is due, in part, to pandemic-related problems at Mexico City’s main market, La Central de Abastos, the largest of its kind in Latin America. Some warehouses have closed, truck traffic has been limited, and people have been getting sick with the virus. The supply chain of producers from around the country has also had to contend with road closures that limited deliveries to the capital and raised prices.
While the market is an enclosed and often crowded environment, small farmers can deliver their crops to the consumer directly, using a model similar to Community Supported Agriculture. At a time when people are worried about the risk of shopping at a crowded market or grocery store, buying directly from a chinampero at an outdoor pickup point in their neighborhood is one way of limiting exposure.
Quarantine has also given many Mexicans more time to cook, Mondragón points out, and they are taking a greater interest in where their food comes from. He cites a friend who now not only knows what a leek is but also how to cook it. His “very capitalistic” sister has started compulsively composting.
Mondragón grew up in Xochimilco, eating produce from the chinampas that his family bought at a local market. Now he works on the 16,000-square-foot chinampa that Colectivo Ahuejote uses for growing crops, teaching, and experimenting with new techniques. The collective operates as an NGO to develop cooperation among farmers, and they’ve also started a for-profit business to sell produce. Their goal is to rehabilitate abandoned chinampas to promote sustainable agriculture and the country’s agricultural heritage.
The pandemic halted the collective’s workshops and trainings, but the commercial side of the business has been flourishing. Between February and May, small farmers who are part of the collective have increased sales by 100 to 120 percent, according to Mondragón. Networks that have been years in the making are now becoming a bigger part of the city’s food supply.
This is a welcome change for farmers who have other jobs to support themselves. Chinampero Pedro Capultitla used to have two or three extra jobs, but he was able to quit one recently to spend more time farming.
The word chinampa comes from the Nahuatl chinámitl, meaning a hedge or fence made out of reeds. Mud from the bottom of the canal as well as lake vegetation are piled into this fencing until they reach the surface, creating a fertile and well-irrigated place for crops to grow. These favorable conditions make the chinampas one of the most productive types of agriculture in the world, enabling as many as seven harvests per year. A variety of produce flourishes here: greens, herbs, flowers, fruits, and milpa — a combination of corn, beans, and squash also grown by Native American farmers in the United States, who call this collection the three sisters.
Chinampero Pedro Méndez Rosas has been farming his whole life, and in that time, he’s seen generations of farmers leave to find work in the city. “They go in search of more money, or a more elegant life,” he says on a phone call after a day spent mostly harvesting squash. “But I’ve always preferred to be in the field.”
Méndez Rosas farms the same chinampas as his father and grandfather, and he eats the food he grows there, only buying products like grains and meat. He started helping out when he was 5 or 6, and “really working” when he was 13. This October, he’ll turn 50.
Since COVID-19, Méndez Rosas has seen the demand for leafy greens go up. As the orders he normally fills from restaurants and chefs have been put on hold, he is now primarily selling products to individuals and families. The quick changes to business can be challenging, but Méndez Rosas has never been in it for the money.
“Being a chinampero is a vocation,” Méndez Rosas says. “For me, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of hanging onto our traditions and our culture.”
These floating gardens have been feeding the city for a millennium, in times of sickness and in times of health, and this pandemic has made it clear that they are poised to keep sustaining the city in the future. Traditions continue quietly; a seed buried in fertile ground, small certainties against the future. For his part, Pedro Méndez Rosas prepares, again, to plant.