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

Seawalls Seem Inevitable

The seawall in front of Aminoko, a village near Katoku. Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

This Pristine Beach Is One of Japan’s Last. Soon It Will Be Filled With Concrete.

In rural Japan, the unstoppable forces of nature meet the immovable determination of the construction state. Can this village survive?

Katoku beach and its village are wrestling with how to cope with increasingly damaging storms. Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

KATOKU, Japan — Standing on its mountain-fringed beach, there is no hint that the Japanese village of Katoku even exists. Its handful of houses hide behind a dune covered with morning glories and pandanus trees, the chitter of cicadas interrupted only by the cadence of waves and the call of an azure-winged jay.

In July, the beach became part of a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, a preserve of verdant peaks and mangrove forests in far southwestern Japan that is home to almost a dozen endangered species. Continue reading

Legal Consequences For Deforestation

Ron Haviv / VII / Redux

This article by Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the newsletter The Weekly Planet, is worth reading if Brazil’s role in climate change has been on your mind:

Deforestation Is a Crime

A new bipartisan bill would treat it that way.

The world doesn’t agree on many things, but one of them is that global deforestation is a problem. If deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest source of climate-warming pollution, after the United States and China. (It would also be a terrible place to live—bulldozers everywhere and no shade to speak of.) Parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon pollution than they capture because of deforestation, a recent study found.

Knowing about a problem is, of course, different from knowing what to do about it. Continue reading

Smog, Ozone & Biodiversity

The view from Beetle Rock in Sequoia National Park, California. Smog, containing high levels of ozone, blows in from the San Joaquin Valley. TRACIE CONE / AP PHOTO

Thanks to Jim Robbins for updating our understanding of ozone’s ongoing threat (we had thought it was lessening):

Ozone Pollution: An Insidious and Growing Threat to Biodiversity

Ground-level ozone has long been known to pose a threat to human health. Now, scientists are increasingly understanding how this pollutant damages plants and trees, setting off a cascade of impacts that harms everything from soil microbes, to insects, to wildlife.

Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park, California. MARJI LANG/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

Sequoia National Park’s famous groves of stout, 300-foot-tall trees sit high on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, above California’s San Joaquin Valley. They are threatened as never before: Wildfires have burned much of the forest, and now, for the first time, insects are killing sequoias. Continue reading

Greece Names Names

A firefighter battles to extinguish a blaze in the village of Markati, near Athens, last week. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

One of our favorite places in the world, a country that had little to do with creating the climate crisis, is suffering disproportionately from it:

Greece plans to name heatwaves in the same way as storms

Personalising the ‘silent killer’ hot spells could raise awareness in time to avert loss of life and property, say scientists

A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop as a wildfire burns in the village of Vilia, Greece, on Wednesday. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Spurred on by this summer’s record temperatures, Greek scientists have begun discussing the need to name and rank heatwaves, better known for their invisibility, before rampant wildfires made the realities of the climate crisis increasingly stark.

A preventative measure, the move would enable policymakers and affected populations to be more prepared for what are being described by experts as “silent killers.” Continue reading

Any Second Thoughts, Deniers & Doubters?

Efforts to minimize the concern about climate change have been concerted for decades, particularly by corporations and ideologues. At the same time there have been plenty of people who have taken the crisis seriously, and have worked tirelessly to get the rest of us on board. Deniers, doubters, those who sow doubt, and anyone else who wants to claim they know better than the scientists, here is one more comment on the recent report (even if few of us will read that report in its entirety):

The U.N.’s Terrifying Climate Report

Scientists predict hotter heat waves and worse flooding in the decades ahead, but the catastrophe is evident everywhere this summer.

A forest fire next to a flood

Illustration by João Fazenda

In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization teamed up with the United Nations Environment Programme to form a body with an even more cumbersome title, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or, as it quickly became known, the I.P.C.C. The I.P.C.C.’s structure was every bit as ungainly as its name. Any report that the group issued had to be approved not just by the researchers who collaborated on it but also by the governments of the member countries, which today number a hundred and ninety-five. The process seemed guaranteed to produce gridlock, and, by many accounts, that was the point of it. (One of the architects of the I.P.C.C. was the Reagan Administration.) Continue reading

The Alberta Tar Sands Prize

In a world that will need less oil, the attraction of going to a landlocked continental interior, such as Alberta, Canada, and trying to separate petroleum from sand is waning. Photograph by Ben Nelms / Bloomberg / Getty

Oil from the tar sands of Alberta will sink us faster than we are already sinking. How important is it to keep it where it is? Akin to some sort of holy grail. Thanks to Bill McKibben, as always, for weekly reminders to keep our eyes on the prize:

We Love You, Alberta—Just Not Your Tar Sands

If the province’s oil is dug up and burned, it will be calculably harder to limit the damage from climate change.

Some weeks ago, the government of Alberta wrote to me—and apparently to a number of other environmentalists and environmental groups. We are all subjects of an “anti-Alberta energy inquiry,” and have the right to respond to charges that are being levelled by a government commission. Alberta, it turns out, has spent three and a half million dollars in an effort to find out whether foreigners are unfairly targeting its oil-and-gas industry. I’m mentioned dozens of times in the draft report, due to be finished this week, and it contains links to lots of articles of mine explaining why the province’s vast tar-sands project should be curtailed. Continue reading

Heat & Humanity

Last week, researchers at nasa and noaa found that “the earth is warming faster than expected.” Photograph by Kyle Grillot / Bloomberg / Getty

This week’s newsletter ponders how adaptable we are and serves as a reminder that we cannot take for granted that we are sufficiently so for the changes upon us:

It’s Not the Heat—It’s the Humanity

Rising air temperatures remind us that our bodies have real limits.

By Bill McKibben

It’s hard to change the outcome of the climate crisis by individual action: we’re past the point where we can alter the carbon math one electric vehicle at a time, and so activists rightly concentrate on building movements large enough to alter our politics and our economics. But ultimately the climate crisis still affects people as individuals—it comes down, eventually, to bodies. Which is worth remembering. In the end, we’re not collections of constructs or ideas or images or demographics but collections of arteries and organs and muscles, and those are designed to operate within a finite range of temperatures. Continue reading

Methane Leaks Plugged With Help From Above

Thanks to Public Broadcasting Service (USA) for this:

Satellites seek out methane leaks from pipelines, oil fields, landfills and farms

Satellite imagery shows a Russian gas pipeline (left) and highlights huge amounts of methane (right) being emitted from the pipeline on September 6, 2019. Kayrros and Modified Copernicus Data, 2019

The threat was invisible to the eye: tons of methane billowing skyward, blown out by natural gas pipelines snaking across Siberia. In the past, those plumes of potent greenhouse gas released by Russian petroleum operations last year might have gone unnoticed. But armed with powerful new imaging technology, a methane-hunting satellite sniffed out the emissions and tracked them to their sources.

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, a growing fleet of satellites is now aiming to help close the valve on methane by identifying such leaks from space. The mission is critical, with a series of recent reports sounding an increasingly urgent call to cut methane emissions. Continue reading

The Gulf Stream’s Weakening Arm

Again, exceptional infographics tell an important environmental story–it is worth opening if only for the quality of the interactive illustrations:

In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers

The warming atmosphere is causing an arm of the powerful Gulf Stream to weaken, some scientists fear.

By MOISES VELASQUEZ-MANOFF
and JEREMY WHITE

IT’S ONE OF THE MIGHTIEST RIVERS you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swaths of the world might look quite different. Continue reading

Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 Pipeline, The Keystone Sequel, Must Not Happen

A section of the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline in Superior, Wis. Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

McKibben, always ahead of the curve, has this proposal for us all to consider:

The Keystone XL Pipeline Is Dead. Next Target: Line 3.

Michael Siluk/Education Images — Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The announcement this week from the Canadian company TC Energy that it was pulling the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline project was greeted with jubilation by Indigenous groups, farmers and ranchers, climate scientists and other activists who have spent the last decade fighting its construction.

The question now is whether it will be a one-off victory or a template for action going forward — as it must, if we’re serious about either climate change or human rights. Continue reading

About That Convenience

Guardian graphic | Source: Morales-Caselles et al, Nature Sustainability, 2021

Thanks, Damian Carrington, for getting us the data that Morales-Caselles et al compiled making us wonder whether convenience is worth this cost:

Takeaway food and drink litter dominates ocean plastic, study shows

Just 10 plastic products make up 75% of all items and scientists say the pollution must be stopped at source

Plastic items from takeaway food and drink dominate the litter in the world’s oceans, according to the most comprehensive study to date. Continue reading

The Very Definition Of Drought

Houseboats on the shrinking Lake Oroville reservoir in California last month. Many have now been removed from the lake. Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We knew a bit about almonds being very thirsty trees, but when you see the trees being uprooted, it becomes even more real. The questions surrounding drought are too much for a short article, so thanks to one of our favored science writers, Henry Fountain, for keeping this focused:

The Western Drought Is Bad. Here’s What You Should Know About It.

Answers to questions about the current situation in California and the Western half of the United States.

Almond trees are removed from an orchard in Snelling, Calif. Farmers are making plans to plant less water-intensive crops because of the drought. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Much of the Western half of the United States is in the grip of a severe drought of historic proportions. Conditions are especially bad in California and the Southwest, but the drought extends into the Pacific Northwest, much of the Intermountain West, and even the Northern Plains.

Drought emergencies have been declared. Farmers and ranchers are suffering. States are facing water cutbacks. Large wildfires are burning earlier than usual. And there appears to be little relief in sight.

There are no precise parameters that define a drought, but it is generally understood to mean a period of abnormally dry weather that goes on for long enough to have an impact on water supplies, farming, livestock operations, energy production and other activities. Continue reading