McKibben On The Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling

Photographs by Mitch Epstein

When you have found an explainer reliably clear on complicated but important issues, keep reading their essays:

The Supreme Court Tries to Overrule the Climate

A destructive decision in West Virginia v. E.P.A.

Credit where due: the Supreme Court’s 6–3 ruling in West Virginia v. E.P.A. is the culmination of a five-decade effort to make sure that the federal government won’t threaten the business status quo. Lewis Powell’s famous memo, written in 1971, before he joined the Supreme Court—between the enactment of a strong Clean Air Act and a strong Clean Water Act, each with huge popular support—called on “businessmen” to stand up to the tide of voices “from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” calling for progressive change. Continue reading

Pantanal Priorities

The Pantanal wetlands in Brazil.

The Pantanal wetlands in Brazil. MARKUS MAUTHE / GREENPEACE

There is not much that has happened in Brazil in the last few years that I would consider good environmental news.

YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

So one more urgency is at risk of getting lost in all the rest (which may be part of a strategy). But making it easier to extract the extracted from the center of the continent is akin to adding fuel to a very big fire:

A Waterway Project in Brazil Imperils a Vast Tropical Wetland

The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, has been battered in recent years by agricultural development, drought, and fire. Now, a push to turn the region’s key river into a waterway for soybean-laden barges threatens to alter the natural flows of this iconic ecosystem.

It takes 14 hours for Lourenço Pereira Leite to reach his fishing spot.

He and his brother-in-law chug along in a simple one-engine motorboat, towing their traditional fishing canoe behind them. Continue reading

Adaptation Was Better Than Doing Nothing, But Nowhere Near Good Enough

Katharine Hayhoe warns that if we continue emitting greenhouse gases no adaptation will be possible. Photograph: Courtesy of Dr Katharine Hayhoe

We have been promoting adaptation for about as long as we have been posting here.  Fiona Harvey the Guardian’s Environment correspondent, interviews a scientist who will not soft peddle how far gone we are from those options:

We cannot adapt our way out of climate crisis, warns leading scientist

Katharine Hayhoe says the world is heading for dangers people have not seen in 10,000 years of civilisation

The world cannot adapt its way out of the climate crisis, and counting on adaptation to limit damage is no substitute for urgently cutting greenhouse gases, a leading climate scientist has warned. Continue reading

Proto-Peat In The Arctic

PHOTOGRAPH: SANNA PIILO

We have posted enough times about the importance of protecting peat, but this is the first we hear the question Carbon-Rich Peat Is Disappearing. But Is It Also Growing? Our thanks to Matt Simon at Wired for this one:

PHOTOGRAPH: SANNA PIILO

Scientists have discovered “proto-peat” forming in the Arctic as the Earth naturally sequesters carbon, but it could take centuries to mature.

THANK PEAT FOR that scotchy flavor of Scotch whisky: The muck forms in Scotland’s bogs, when layer after layer of dead vegetation resists decay and compresses into fuel, which is burned during scotch distillation. But you can also thank peat for helping keep our planet relatively cool, as all that muck—which is particularly common across the Arctic—traps a tremendous amount of carbon that would otherwise heat the atmosphere. Continue reading

The Dirty Banking & Fossil Fuel Relationship Seen From Another Angle

We know a bit about dirty banking. While we do not think money is a dirty word, we have seen how dirty it can get when mixed with fossil fuels. So thanks, as always, to Bill McKibben for this further illumination. We are sharing his newsletter, rather than the New Yorker story he references, because as you will see below he encourages sharing Your money is your carbon:

If you’ve got $125k in the financial system, it’s doing as much damage as your cooking and your heating and your flying. These are the most important new climate numbers for many years

Earlier today I published a big story in the New Yorker about how banks are driving the climate crisis. A report from a consortium of environmental groups made clear that for the biggest, richest companies on earth, the cash they keep in the banking system (which gets lent out for pipelines and the like) produces more carbon than their actual, you know, business. Google emits more carbon from its money than its phones, and Netflix from its streaming, and so on. Continue reading

Questions About Forests As Carbon Sinks

PEXELS

We have featured articles about forests so many times for multiple reasons. Even when we hint that we do so just out of pure love, it is almost always about the value of forests to our future on the planet. As always, when a Yale e360 article can help illuminate further on a topic, here goes:

This map shows the height of forests worldwide. Taller forests typically store more carbon. NASA

Climate Change Will Limit How Much Carbon Forests Take Up, New Research Shows

Governments are increasingly looking to forests to draw down carbon pollution, but worsening droughts threaten to stunt tree growth, while larger wildfires and insect infestations risk decimating woodlands, two new studies show. Continue reading

Carbon, Sequestration & Hope

(Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times / Redux)

When I read about a promising new technology related to carbon sequestration, I am ambivalent based on the experience of many past false hopes. Carbon is a very large problem. Finding new methods of sequestration is a very challenging puzzle.

I track such developments every week by reading the newsletter that Bill McKibben posts on Substack. Most weeks I post something here from that, and do my best to balance the terrifying and enraging with the more hopeful news he occasionally shares there.

The only other newsletter I read regularly is Robinson Meyer’s newsletter for the Atlantic, called The Weekly Planet. Here is one of his worth reading for a bit of encouragement (when you click the hyperlink it will go to the current newsletter, which until April 20 is this one; after April 20 scroll to find this edition):

The Biggest Investment Ever in Sucking Carbon Out of the Sky

The world’s biggest tech companies are getting serious about carbon removal, the still-nascent technology wherein humanity can pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yesterday, an alliance of prominent Silicon Valley companies—including Google, Meta, Shopify, and the payment company Stripe—announced that it is purchasing $925 million in carbon removal over the next eight years. In a world awash in overhyped corporate climate commitments, this is actually a big deal. Continue reading

When Diplomats Must Be Undiplomatic

Yesterday I posted about one of the easier topics among the many options I have to post about every day. Today, a topic increasingly frequent in my posts, but definitely not an easy one. So I look to one person to summarize our week-to-week progress or lack of it. As always, I recommend signing up for his newsletter:

The World’s Top Diplomat Has Had It Up to Here

The Secretary General of the UN models how to think about climate change

I can remember when some of us organized what may have been the planet’s first truly huge climate march, with 400,000 people descending on New York in 2014. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came to walk with us for a few blocks, and it was considered remarkable: the world’s top diplomat had previously been too diplomatic to join in protests challenging the policies of his member nations. Continue reading

McKibben’s Longform Power Pitch

The market for electrons is predictable, meaning that solar panels installed on farmland can provide a fairly stable income for farmers. Photograph by George Rose / Getty

Illustration by Álvaro Bernis

If you have not been reading Bill McKibben regularly, or at all, here is as good a place to start as you will find. It is a long, powerful pitch:

In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things

The truth is new and counterintuitive: we have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels.

In 2020, fossil-fuel pollution killed three times as many people as COVID-19 did. Photograph by Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty

On the last day of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire report yet. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, had, he said, “seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.” Setting aside diplomatic language, he described the document as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” and added that “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” Continue reading

As The World Burns

Heat waves have become hotter, droughts deeper, and wildfires more frequent, the I.P.C.C. report states, and the window of time for doing anything about it is fast closing. Photograph by David McNew / Getty

Even as a geopolitical crisis has our full attention, we cannot ignore other important information about our shared future. Click through to the magazine website where one of our favored interpreters of environmental news helps us understand how The Latest U.N. Climate Report Paints Another Grim Picture:

The Secretary-General cites a “criminal” abdication of leadership. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case that may hamper emissions regulations.

There were two front-page-worthy developments on Monday in the world of climate policy. Perhaps even more significant than either one was the fact that they were at cross-purposes. Continue reading

Migration Motivated By Climate Change, Defined

Workers place geo-textile bags to prevent river erosion on the banks of Padma River in Bangladesh last September. Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images

Climate change has been a constant topic in our pages. Migration motivated by this crisis, not at all. Thanks to Ari Shapiro, at National Public Radio (USA) for this clarifying question and answer session:

The first step to preparing for surging climate migration? Defining it

There are calls to better define what constitutes “climate migration” amid concern that policies are not keeping up with the growing issue and countries are failing to properly help those fleeing disasters.

Anywhere from tens of millions to one billion people could become climate migrants by 2050, according to a recent report from the RAND Corporation. The number varies so widely depending on the definition used. Continue reading

Palm Oil Potential

An oil palm plantation encroaches on a rainforest in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. NANANG SUJANA / CIFOR

Palm oil’s problems, and potential solutions have been catalogued in these pages many times. In this recent story by James Dinneen, writing again for Yale Environment 360, a new potential solution is explored:

Can Synthetic Palm Oil Help Save the World’s Tropical Forests?

Christopher Chuck, a chemical engineer at the University of Bath, is working to produce yeast able to generate more oil from cheaper feedstocks. UNIVERSITY OF BATH

Numerous startups are creating synthetic palm oil in the lab, hoping to slow the loss of tropical forests to oil palm cultivation. But palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil, and producing a synthetic version on a large scale remains a daunting challenge.

Tom Jeffries and Tom Kelleher met at Rutgers University in the 1970s while studying industrially useful microbes. Jeffries went on to run a yeast genomics program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Kelleher spent decades in the biomedical industry, working with biologics like insulin, which are produced by genetically modified microbes in giant, fermenting vats. Continue reading

The Great Bamboozle

Bill McKibben’s newsletter on Substack asks the question:

What happens if you greenwash greenwash?

It’s hard to go lower than net zero….

Greenwashing began, as it name implies, as a gentle, barely perceptible rain of fibs. Back at the start, it was mostly pictures; it was pretty easy to gauge how much environmental damage a company did by the number of penguin photographs it felt it needed to include in its annual report. Continue reading

Yakutia’s Outsized Impact

“The problem is, you can’t just turn off, let alone reverse, permafrost thaw,” one scientist said. “It won’t be possible to refreeze the ground and have it go back to how it was.” Photographs by Alexander Gronsky for The New Yorker

Joshua Yaffa reminds me, vividly, that my work in Yakutia 16 years ago was an exercise in futility:

The Great Siberian Thaw

Permafrost contains microbes, mammoths, and twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. What happens when it starts to melt?

Flying over Yakutia, in northeastern Russia, I watched the dark shades of the boreal forest blend with patches of soft, lightly colored grass. Continue reading

2021 Climate Inaction

ILLUSTRATION: JENNY SHARAF; GETTY IMAGES

Not fun, but a useful review:

2021 Was a Huge Missed Opportunity on Climate Action

The pandemic should have been a wake-up call—instead, emissions have climbed once more. Here’s how the US could have seized the opportunity

JUST LIKE THAT, a pandemic-fueled glimpse of a better world is growing hazy—or smoggy, to be more precise. As civilization locked down in early 2020—industries ground to a halt, more people worked from home, and almost no one traveled—global carbon dioxide emissions crashed by 6.4 percent, and in the United States by 13 percent. In turn, air quality greatly improved. Life transformed, sure enough, but that transformation was fleeting. Scientists warned that the drop would be temporary because economies would roar back stronger than ever to make up for lost revenue. Indeed, by the end of 2021, emissions have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. Continue reading

The Biggest Land Grab In The History Of Humankind

Illustration by João Fazenda

When she publishes an essay, or a longform reported article, it should be clear before you start that you are almost certainly not going to enjoy what you learn:

It’s rare that a tiny country like Nauru gets to determine the course of world events. But, for tangled reasons, this rare event is playing out right now. If Nauru has its way, enormous bulldozers could descend on the largest, still mostly untouched ecosystem in the world—the seafloor—sometime within the next few years. Hundreds of marine scientists have signed a statement warning that this would be an ecological disaster resulting in damage “irreversible on multi-­generational timescales.” Continue reading

Beggar Thy Southern Neighbors

A woman pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of New York. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

Thanks to the Guardian for this Econ 101 textbook example of a “beggar thy neighbor” action taken in one country and imposed on others, using “market forces” explanations to justify the action:

Latin America urges US to reduce plastic waste exports to region

Study finds exports to region doubled in 2020 with practice predicted to grow as US invests in recycling plants

Environmental organisations across Latin America have called on the US to reduce plastic waste exports to the region, after a report found the US had doubled exports to some countries in the region during the first seven months of 2020. Continue reading

Really, Joe?

The Build Back Better legislation included billions to accelerate clean energy like rooftop solar, but with the bill now stalled in Congress, cutting U.S. emissions will be tougher. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Really? is a question we have to ask every now and then. We had no time to waste, because the country with the biggest carbon footprint per capita needed to change something(s) substantially to allow the planet a chance. But one senator stood in the way. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for laying out clearly what the stakes were, and now are:

What losing Build Back Better means for climate change

With billions of dollars for clean energy, the Build Back Better legislation has the potential to substantially and rapidly cut heat-trapping emissions in the U.S. But after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin rejected the bill on Sunday, Build Back Better is effectively dead, at a time when scientists say the world can’t afford to wait on climate change. Continue reading

What Are You Willing To Do To Protect The Environment?

ILLUSTRATION: PABLO HURTADO DE MENDOZA

Elizabeth Flock has written the most unusual article I have ever read published by The Economist (in this case its 1843 magazine, which offers longform stories). The question in the title of her article below gives the reader permission to draw their own conclusion on the ethics of destruction of private property in the interest of environmental justice. It is the second time I have been surprised in such a way (this conversation was even more surprising since it was the first time a mainstream publication raised such a question). This article poses the question in the context of a very human story, well-told:

Two environmentalists sabotaged an oil pipeline in America. Are they terrorists or heroes?

As the devastating effects of climate change became impossible to ignore, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya took matters into their own hands

ILLUSTRATION: PABLO HURTADO DE MENDOZA

When Jessica Reznicek walked into a courtroom in Des Moines, Iowa, last June, her sun-weathered face was the only clue that she’d lived rough: that she’d camped at the edge of an oil-pipeline construction site for months; that she’d camped night after night all over the country when she and Ruby Montoya, her co-defendant, were on the run; that she’d camped simply because, as far back as she could remember, she loved being in nature.

Reznicek, dressed in a black trouser suit and white blouse with her blonde hair hanging neatly, hoped that the federal judge deciding her sentence might show her some sympathy (Montoya was due to be sentenced later in the summer). Continue reading

1992 Earth Summit Revisited

Illustration by João Fazenda

In her look back at last week’s events in Glasgow, Elizabeth Kolbert comments in Running Out of Time at the U.N. Climate Conference that we were set up for this moment at the first such event nearly three decades earlier:

To really appreciate America’s fecklessness, you have to go back to the meeting that preceded all the bad COPs—the so-called Earth Summit, in 1992.

For those inclined to see them, there were plenty of bad omens last week as the latest round of international climate negotiations—cop26—got under way in Glasgow. A storm that lashed England with eighty-mile-per-hour winds disrupted train service from London to Scotland, leaving many delegates scrambling to find a way to get to the meeting. Just as the conclave began, Glasgow’s garbage workers went on strike, and rubbish piled up in the streets. Continue reading