Discover more from The Crucial Years
An Ever-Smaller Board
On which to play the human game
I didn’t expect to love Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories—a lot of the towns of the far north always seem hunkered down to me, a collection quonset huts braced against the long winter. Yellowknife, though, was charming: I hadn’t been off the airplane three minutes before the northern lights broke through, a green wave cracking across the sky. The next morning I wandered the shores of Great Slave Lake, past houses perched on the rocks of the vast shore like the most picturesque parts of downeast Maine. In between meetings with First Nations leaders key in the pipeline fights of the last decade, I wandered the trails around the capitol building—among other things, I happened across a pure black morph of a fox, one of the loveliest creatures I’ve ever seen.
And today Yellowknife is being evacuated—its 20,000 residents trying to drive south down the long road towards Edmonton, or being flown out in shifts from its small airport, even as flames and smoke lick at the city limits.
It’s important—in this year that has seen global warming come fully to life—to describe accurately what’s happening on our planet. And one key thing is: the number of places humans can safely live is now shrinking. Fast. The size of the board on which we can play the great game of human civilization is getting smaller.
We are now deep into the crucial years for our planet, which is why this newsletter needs to be free and widely available. That’s possible because the people for whom it’s not a financial hardship pay the modest and voluntary subscription fee. Thank you.
Yellowknife this week, and Maui, and Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and Kelowna, a beautiful city in British Columbia’s Okanagan country. The pictures from each looked more or less the same: walls of orange flame and billows of black smoke. In each case many of the people hardest hit were indigenous; in each case fear and sadness and anger and above all uncertainty. What would be left? When might we return? Could we build back?
The story of human civilization has been steady expansion. Out of Africa into the surrounding continents. Out along the river corridors and ocean coasts as trade grew. Into new territory as we cut down forests or filled in swamps. But that steady expansion has now turned into a contraction. There are places it’s getting harder and harder to live, because it burns or floods. Or because the threat of fire and water is enough to drive up the price of insurance past the point where people can afford it.
For a while we try to fight off this contraction—we have such wonderfully deep roots to the places where we came up. But eventually it’s too hot or too expensive—when you can’t grow food any more, for instance, you have to leave.
So far we’re mostly failing the tests of solidarity or generosity or justice that these migrations produce. The EU, for instance, has this year paid huge sums to the government of Tunisia in exchange for ‘border security,’ i.e., for warehousing Africans fleeing drought.
“We all heard that the prime minister of Italy paid the Tunisian president a lot of money to keep the Blacks away from the country,” Kelvin, a 32-year-old Nigerian migrant, said on Saturday from Tunisia’s border with Libya.
Like other sub-Saharan African migrants, many of whom can enter Tunisia without visas, he had spent several months cleaning houses and working construction in Sfax, scraping together the smuggler’s fee for a boat to Europe. Then, he said, Tunisians in uniforms broke through his door, beat him until his ankle fractured and put him on a bus to the desert.
But the size of this tide will eventually overwhelm any such effort, on that border or ours, or pretty much any other. Job one, of course, is to limit the rise in temperature so that fewer people have to flee: remember, at this point each extra tenth of a degree takes another 140 million humans out of what scientists call prime human habitart
By late this century, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, 3 to 6 billion people, or between a third and a half of humanity, could be trapped outside of that zone, facing extreme heat, food scarcity and higher death rates, unless emissions are sharply curtailed or mass migration is accommodated.
But even if we do everything right at this point, there’s already extraordinary quantities of human tragedy inexorably in motion. So along with new solar panels and new batteries, we need new/old ethics of solidarity. We’re going to have to settle the places that still work with creativity and grace; the idea that we can sprawl suburbs across our best remaining land is sillier all the time. Infill, densification, community—these are going to need to be our watchwords. Housing is, by this standard, a key environmental solution. Every-man-for-himself politics will have to yield to we’re-all-in-this-together; otherwise, it’s going to be far grimmer than it already is.
Matters are moving quickly now.
In other energy and climate news:
+From Louis Ramirez, a well-told story of how Quebec became one of the first places on earth to ban fracking
Any strategist understands that social movement victories are highly contextual. Quebec’s is no exception.
They caught industry early. They tapped into a rich social democratic tradition. Hydro-electricity’s availability in the province constituted a ready energy alternative, and meant the province had never significantly developed fossil fuels. The extraction potential was not entirely clear anyways.
And yet there is little doubt on anyone’s mind. A conservative, pro-business Quebec government with a penchant for anti-woke populism was compelled to keep oil and gas in the ground.
The movement created a complete, textbook “ecology,” mobilizing diverse capacities from the bottom up. They had rebels threatening civil disobedience, highly skilled and committed journalists, and cultural actors on side. They generated deep public engagement, turning up at every consultation, as well as massive petition drives. They built unlikely alliances between farmers, Indigenous nations, hunters, NGOs, labour unions, and many others. They published books and research, had an inside game, excellent legal activism, and allies within political parties.
+Jonathan Foley argues persuasively that industrial carbon capture schemes are mostly just a fig leaf designed to provide the fossil fuel industry with the social licence to keep on burning stuff. He has six reasons, including:
First, industrial carbon capture is still far too clunky and expensive – costing thousands of dollars per ton – to put on the taxpayer’s dime. By comparison, cutting emissions through energy efficiency or renewable energy is far cheaper, and saves taxpayers money in the long run. Instead of billion-dollar Big Oil boondoggles, the government should invest in proven climate solutions while funding smaller, more innovative R&D projects that explore cheaper, scalable ways to capture carbon.
Second, industrial carbon removal is comically undersized. Even the largest projects only sequester seconds worth of our annual emissions, at tremendous expense. And no meaningful scaling of this technology – to a size needed to help address climate change – is in sight. Basic physics, and common sense, tells us this is exceptionally challenging
+Under a month now till the March to End Fossil Fuels in New York outside the UN
+Dana Fisher and Quinn Renaghan have an account of the emerging ‘radical flank’ of the climate movement with some interesting statistics:
The activists are majority female (61%), predominantly white (93%), and highly educated (91% have completed college and one-third had completed a JD, MD, or PhD degree). Despite the youth-focused media reports, activists engaging in civil disobedience as part of the climate movement tended to be middle-aged, with an average age of 52 (25% reported being 69 or older).
Similar to recent research on the climate movement, these climate activists are motivated by a range of issues to engage in climate activism. Their top motivations were Climate Change (83%), Racial Justice (58%), and Income and Wealth Inequality (46%).
+Gabriel Furshong in the Nation has one of the best accounts of the heartening victory of Montana youth, who forced a court to recognize that the state constitution safeguards their right to a clean environment, something that the state’s oil and gas regulators are not delivering.
How many more years of litigation will be required before meaningful change occurs is a matter of speculation, but, as this question plays out in Montana, ripple effects from Seeley’s decision will be felt across the country. “It’s going to make other judges braver,” Hedges predicted.
Schwartz agreed, saying that, above all, “this case demonstrates that climate impacts are justiciable.” In other words, government actions that exacerbate climate change and cause individual harm, which have been mostly confined in legislative chambers, are now suitable for debate in a court of law, where, he points out, “facts actually matter.”
+Thanks to Jacqui Patterson for alerting me to a new report on the particular dangers faced by Black women organizers on social justice issues including the environment. It’s filled with unnerving stories about the trials organizers have faced, and some tips for avoiding the worst:
What are the pre things we can do? We need to act preemptively before we get attacked. I just know that me and other people like my family would’ve been in a better position if we had known the steps to take prior to the attack, like thescrubbing the internet, like the different names on social media, just little things, even purposely misspelling your name. Organizations,activists, etc., should have access to this type of service before something happens. The best thing one can do is be prepared before it happens. Once your data is out there, they can’t really get it back from individuals. They can do whatever they want with it at that point. So, I wish we were more prepared. I wish we would have had these protocols in place before these things happen.
+The ongoing joke that are the upcoming climate talks in Dubai got a new punchline last week, when it emerged that the United Arab Emirates had “hired a strategic communications firm to ‘counteract all negative press and media reports.’” Since the Washington Post immediately got hold of that news, there was now…one more media report to counteract. The essential problem is that the government’s conduct is unspinnable: “in recent months, a flurry of negative articles have highlighted the UAE’s plans to increase oil production by nearly 1 million barrels per day over the next four years, despite warnings from top scientists that the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels.”
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