Big Oil's Down, So Let's Kick Them Where It Hurts
In the Wallet
It’s easy, after three decades of losing to their lies, to think of the fossil fuel industry as invincible—and right at the moment they’re sitting on tens of billions of dollars of what the UN Secretary General correctly described as “grotesque” profits, their share of the take from longtime partner Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But in truth they’re finally losing—or at least, losing more than they’re used to.
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If the Democratic majority in the US Senate keeps its tenuous resolve long enough to vote the for the Inflation Reduction Act over the weekend, it will ratify a shift in the balance of power. Public worry over climate change produced enough pressure that Congress finally had to act. And if Big Oil got plenty of gifts from its proxy Joe Manchin, it won’t be enough to head off their now inevitable decline. Their problem is, someone else (the renewables industry) has figured out how to deliver the same product, energy, at a lower price. If you doubt that advantage, console yourself with Kingsmill Bond’s new analysis from the Rocky Mountain Institute
The money in the new bill will make that advantage overpowering. Think, for example, about the single biggest market for Big Oil: gas for cars. But now the government is going to be offering you $7,500 to help pay for an EV, and building out a nationwide network of fast chargers to take away your range anxiety. Meanwhile, you’ve been paying $5 for a gallon of gas, a memory that won’t soon fade. Oh, and as Hertz announced this week, the maintenance cost on their fleet of electric cars is 50% less than for internal combustion vehicles, because there aren’t many moving parts. Now, as more and more people move towards electric cars, not only does your gas business begin to slow, but your natural allies begin to find new friends: if GM and Ford are converting to electrics, suddenly they and their lobbyists more interested in making life easier for sun and wind companies. And so on, in an accelerating virtuous cycle. The fossil fuel industry had a world-changing product in 1822, and a relatively lousy one in 2022; that is going to erode their business no matter how many Senators they still own, and even if they can use those Senators to get federal support for bad ideas (CCS, say).
But of course the question—the main question that matters at this point—is how fast that erosion takes place. Fast enough to actually limit the rise in the planet’s temperature?
Getting there in anything like time means pairing the big legislative win in Congress with a comparably big win on Wall Street, and that’s where Lander (and a lot of other people) come in. At the moment Big Oil sees a glide path that will let it keep its business model more or less intact for another decade, just long enough to do in the earth’s climate system. But if we can choke off the money supply to Big Oil, then we can make its engines sputter and put it in a tailspin. (How’s that for a bunch of hydrocarbon-era metaphors?)
The industry recognizes this, of course—if you have any doubts see a truly remarkable piece of reporting this morning in the New York Times, outlining how red state treasurers and comptrollers have been working overtime to make sure banks and asset managers keep lending to coal, gas, and oil. West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Utah, Idaho—a whole series of Republican treasurers are banding together to stand up to ‘wokeness,’ which apparently in this case is what you call ‘physics’ if you’ve taken a lot of money from the Koch Brothers et al. “If a bank, for instance, decides to say they have a no-lending policy as relates to thermal coal, well, then we’ll find a bank that doesn’t have that policy,” the West Virginia treasurer explained
But if the climate movement can refocus its efforts from Congress to Wall Street, we can win this battle too. Because the money is in the blue states—65% of the GDP comes from blue counties. You think West Virginia scares BlackRock? Clearly it does—the asset manager stopped voting its shares for climate action this year after these kinds of protests began, because Blackrock lacks the courage of its lack of convictions. But New York City is going to scare them a lot more because it has a lot more money—the 4th biggest pension fund in the country. Eight of the ten largest public pension funds in the country are from states that voted Biden.
Which is where New York City comptroller Brad Lander comes in. On Monday, I sat down with him for a virtual conversation where he promised that the city would soon be taking action—there was no way, he said, for New York to meet its climate commitments if its investment partners are bankrolling fossil fuels. He was talking mostly about Blackrock that day, but it was clear he’d also absorbed the recent reports showing the huge amounts of carbon that cash on hand in the mainstream banking system produces: it’s a lock that New York City’s money in the bank produces more carbon than all its garbage trucks and buses and subways and municipal buildings combined.
And he also said he’d be trying to round up other treasurers and comptrollers from around the country—a job that the environmental movement can help with enormously. The interest here is going to be highly asymmetrical: it’s hard to imagine that anyone outside Citibank is going to take to the streets demanding that governments keep their cash in Citibank, but it’s easy to imagine mobilizing lots of people who understand that governments should be moving that money. (And it’s made much easier by the fact that investments in clean energy have been far more profitable over the last decade than investments in fossil fuel; we’re at the point where fiduciary duty increasingly demands dumping dirty energy). This is not just “doing ESG,” which as Ken Pucker and Andrew Wing point out in the Harvard Business Review remains a freighted approach. This is aggressively defunding the bad guys.
Between individuals cutting up their credit cards and moving their pensions (the great UK campaign “Make My Money Matter” campaign shows just how possible this is), and states and cities pushing hard, we can make the financial system move just as we’ve made the legislative one finally start to shift. But it can’t take three decades this time—we better aim for three years.
And this is also one way—along with continuing all the other types of grassroots pressure and regulatory intervention—to try and tackle the projects that that Manchin demanded as his pound of flesh: the pipelines and offshore leases that people fought effectively enough to force Big Oil’s man to the table. In the past groups have beaten some of these—drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, say—by making them too toxic for financiers; it was a technique pioneered by indigenous activists at the dawn of the tarsands battles, before anyone had heard of Keystone XL. (It’s a big part of the struggle underway against Africa’s EACOP and Canada’s TMX pipelines at the moment). The people fighting abominations like the MVP pipeline through Appalachia have every right to be chagrined this week; their stoutness is a big reason we have a climate bill, but that bill sacrifices their particular interests in the name of a larger planetary good. It sucks to get tossed beneath a bus even if it’s electric. So it’s no fair anyone else taking a break after the Senate battle—we need everyone as enthused as possible, smelling blood in the water, and figuring out what ways we have to fight bad fossil fuel projects. Our moment is now: yes we need to vote and legislate, but the pathway runs through Wall Street too. If capitalism isn’t working for you, go after capital.
More news from around the world of climate and energy this week:
+A remarkable piece from the Guardian demonstrating all the ways that the planet is coming unglued even with a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature.
The analysis of hundreds of scientific studies – the most comprehensive compilation to date – demonstrates beyond any doubt how humanity’s vast carbon emissions are forcing the climate to disastrous new extremes. At least a dozen of the most serious events, from killer heatwaves to broiling seas, would have been all but impossible without human-caused global heating, the analysis found.
+Big Papi joins the climate fight, good news since we’re clearly headed into extra innings
+Everyone always needs to keep up to date with Tom Athanasiou and his ongoing tally of what’s globally fair (and hence politically and morally workable) in the climate fight. Latest installation of his Fair Shares analysis
A rapid global climate transition can, in principle, be achieved – we have (all) the money and (most of) the technology we need – but it’s hard to see how this will be possible if it is not done fairly. In other words, if we intend to succeed, then not only benefits and promises but also unavoidable pain and disruption must be shared amongst the people of this world in a way that is widely accepted as being fair enough. We can not follow, yet again, the all too often repeated pattern in which most of the benefits are captured by those who are already wealthy and powerful, while most of the pain and suffering is born by those already marginalized and oppressed.
+The NY Times again, this time with a remarkable investigation of the illegal airstrips punching holes for miners in the Amazon.
+So good to have Emily Atkin back with Heated (and kind of Beyonce to provide the soundtrack). Her sagacious take on private jets and climate dissonance. I was unaware that Drake’s private jet is actually a…767, which means that by comparison the Kardashians are practically riding e-bikes
+Environmental historian (and farmer) Brian Donahue with an important new pamphlet urging young people to take up agriculture.
+Writing in The New Republic, Aaron Regunberg offers one of the best accounts I’ve ever read of why individual actions matter even if they’re not the way we’re actually going to stop climate change
Watching solar panels spring up on a roof I pass every day, or waving hello to a fellow bike commuter, can be a lovely—and sometimes necessary—day-to-day reminder that there are people in every part of my community who care about this crisis (and who could be recruited to engage more actively in the climate movement, if they haven’t yet taken that step). The possibility that my own solar installation or bike use or vegan dish at a friend’s potluck could lend this same boost to others is, I think, worth real consideration.
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And so finally we reach the end of our epic nonviolent yarn; I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed serializing this book over the past year, and hearing from those of you who enjoyed it; enormous thanks to Eden Friedman for her help in keeping it all straight. If you want to read the first 87 chapters of The Other Cheek, you can find them in the archive.
The day was long, tense, and boring. Only Maria and Father Aaron went down to the sidewalk to talk to reporters; since no one knew precisely where the Chinese agents or the FBI were hanging out, they thought it best to keep everyone else indoors.
“The good news is, we’ve got a lot more supporters out there today than we did yesterday,” said Maria. “When word got out that the Pope had taken an interest, people started coming in. The hockey team from Regis University is outside now—they were back early from break for a tournament, and since it’s a Jesuit school apparently it took one call from the Vatican to get them on the way.”
“The Pope is a Jesuit,” said Father Aaron. “The first Jesuit pope ever.” “Exactly,” said Maria. “Anyway, they’re wearing their jerseys, and the Build the Wall guys keep thinking that because they’re big and beefy they must be on their side. It freaks them out when they start talking about God.”
“The chanting is much more even now,” said Father Aaron, who had officiated at both masses that morning. “One side says ‘Send Them Back.’ The other says “Matthew Twenty Five.”
“Which means what?” asked Cass.
“It’s where Jesus explains who gets to go to heaven,” said Sister Noreen. “’I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
MK and Allie spent much of the day on the computer, preparing the Vukovic Center website for what they expected would be a big increase in interest the next day, once the news about the babies was out in the world. They purchased the domain “KidsAreGoodEnough.com,” and Gloria helped them pick out stock pictures of children from around the world to go with the photos of all the San Francisco babies. Matti woke up briefly, but he still looked exhausted; he moved to a cot out in the hall and he was soon asleep again.
“Matti gave us what we needed,” Perry told Cass and Allie and MK once he’d left the room. “More than what we needed, really—he had an idea that just might get us through the evening if we can make it work. The Chinese leader is going to think he’s talking to the world, but in fact his speech won’t go beyond the room he’s in. The DL, on the other hand, should be on every cellphone on earth.”
“Matti figured that out?” said Allie. “He didn’t say anything about it.”
“I think maybe he’s trying out not boasting,” said MK. “Just a guess.”
As night finally fell, they ate a dinner of bean tortillas that Delmy and Sister Noreen prepared. Maria produced a bottle of champagne—”I think we’re going to be busy when it gets close to midnight,” she said, “so let’s have a little celebration now. I want to say thanks to everyone here. Matti, you got us started on this adventure; Cass and Perry and MK and Allie, you’ve given over your early adulthood to this fight; Wei, we can’t imagine your courage; Father, and Sister Noreen, you’re part of our family now. Barbara, my sister, we all know what you’ve meant. I propose a toast to our colleagues at SGI, who bought us the time we needed.”
They raised their glasses.
“And to Professor Vukovic,” said Cass, looking at Allie.
“To Professor Vukovic,” she said, “who would be enjoying this immensely.”
“I have one small piece of good news already,” said Maria. “Delmy, it’s about you and the girls. I had a brief phone call with the apostolic nuncio in Washington—he’s kind of the ambassador from the Vatican to the U.S., and apparently he’s a close friend of the Pope’s. Anyway, he’s going to take your case up with immigrations officials here, which is a good sign—but if somehow you get denied asylum in America, he’s confirmed you’ll be given it in Vatican City. You’re definitely not going back to Guatemala.” With that a small cheer went up.
“I want to toast too,” said Gloria. “Why do they call it toast?”
“You can, you know,” said Maria, pulling a gold can from her purse. “It’s no caffeine,” she told Delmy.
“I want to say a toast to Momo,” said Gloria. “You are a very funny dog.”
When they had finished dinner, Perry said “we’ve got about ten minutes till the ball falls in Times Square, which according to Matti is the moment. Can people turn on their cellphones, so we can monitor?”
They were watching the crowds in New York dancing happily in the street when every phone in the room suddenly vibrated—even on t.v. they could see revelers in Manhattan start to reach into their pockets. Cass was staring at her screen: “911 alert,” it said. “Please stand by for a critical message from local authorities.”
“Was that your idea, Matti,” said Allie.
“Sort of,” he said quietly. “The hard part was getting it translated into languages all over the world. There are a lot of languages, and the script had to go into all of them—the linguistics institute in Beijing has been working on it for weeks.”
After a moment the words disappeared, replaced by an image that seemed at first to be in black and white, of two figures in space suits standing next to a craft of some kind. One of them began to talk, and immediately subtitles were flowing across the bottom of the small screen.
“Greetings,” it said. “I am Liu Yang and this is Meilin Gao, and we are speaking to you from the Mare Fecundatatis region of the moon’s surface—the Sea of Fertility. It is not far east of the Sea of Tranquility, where American astronauts landed more than fifty years ago, back when America was the dominant power on earth. But now Chinese power is on the rise, which is why we have interrupted your evening to share with you this news.”
On the screen, one of the figures pointed to the other, and a new voice could be heard. “Thank you Comrade Liu,” the voice said. “Not only are we the first Chinese people to walk on the moon, we are the first women to do so, which is a reminder that, as Chairman Mao once said, ‘women hold up half the sky.’ We wish to thank Chairman Xi for sending us on this journey, and to the people of China whose lottery tickets helped raise the money required.”
The first figure stepped aside to reveal a short pole, and then pulled a cord which unfurled a banner—instantly it was clear the picture was actually in color, and the red and yellow of the Chinese flag stood out starkly against the gray backdrop of crater and rock. “We are very pleased to be the first people to stand on the moon this century,” said Liu. “But we have something else just as groundbreaking to share with you,” she said. “Two babies have been born in China, the most special two babies in history. We send them a greeting here from the surface of the moon.”
The picture shifted to a man in a white lab coat, standing in what seemed to be a hospital. “Greetings, Liu and Meilin,” he said. “All Chinese people salute your courage. My name is He Yeung, and I am director of the fertility clinic at the Southern Institute of Technology outside Shenzhen. I want to introduce you to two other outstanding Chinese women, Red Flag and Yellow Star.” As he spoke, the camera focused on two white bassinets. “They are twin girls, born one month ago today. And they are the first of their kind on earth—using new technology we have altered their genes to make them smarter than they otherwise would have been,” he said. “They are normal children, except better. And they offer a future where people become smarter, and stronger, and more productive with each passing generation. I too would like to thank Chairman Xi for his support of our work, and I believe now he has some important words for all of us to hear and study.”
With that the picture shifted yet again, this time to a vast room—the subtitles on the bottom identified it as the Great Hall of the People. A man was standing at the podium, receiving a standing ovation from a crowded hall. As he quieted them and prepared to speak, Perry said, “Switching, on 3.”
“Arunachal, stand by,” said Professor Lee on a phone.
“Two,” said Perry. “One.” He hit a button, and again the pictures on the cellphone abruptly shifted. This time the camera showed an older monk, in a red robe, sitting cross-legged on a green field, and holding a Chinese flag with one hand.
“DL,” said Wei, with a gasp.
“Hello,” the figure said, speaking in English. “My name is Tenzin Gyatso, and many people know me as the Dalai Lama. I am the spiritual leader of Tibet, which is an autonomous region in the country of China. I am sitting here on the border with Tibet—those troops you can see in the distance mark the actual line, which I am not allowed to cross, because the government in Beijing considers me an enemy. But I have walked across India for the last two and a half years, carrying this Chinese flag every step of the way, to remind people that we Tibetans understand that we are part of the larger Chinese nation.”
He paused for a moment. “Let me first congratulate China on the technical achievements it has announced today. Technological progress is very important, and space travel is a marvel. We join with everyone in China in sending best wishes to the astronauts on the moon, and to the babies in the clinic. But many of our problems can’t be solved by technology alone. They require also that we change our habits. I would like to show you a film taken a few hours ago, here on the border.”
The image switched to an aerial view of a river valley. “In Tibet this river is called the Tsang-po and in India and Bangladesh it is called the Brahmaputra,” he said. “Earlier today a wall of water washed down it, wiping out villages, bridges, roads, clinics, schools. Happily we believe everyone in its path had been evacuated, but we know the cost in dollars—and in the lives of other creatures—will be high.” The picture showed a writhing, foaming wash of water, crashing high up the walls of a forested valley, stripping trees bare of leaves and toppling them into the flow. “Those who wish to contribute to the relief effort can go to ArunachalRelief.com,” he said.
The picture returned to the calm face of the monk. “The flood is not China’s fault. It happened because global warming is quickly melting the glaciers of the Himalayas, and forming new lakes and great dams of ice. But China did not warn the rest of the world what was to happen, which is a reminder that having just a few people make all decisions is not necessarily wise.
“I do not want to overthrow that leadership,” the monk continued. “I am not a political leader. I can offer only spiritual advice. But I think China may profit from spiritual advice—it has gotten very rich very fast, but at the cost of forgetting its traditions, including the Buddhist ideas that had their start there. And when you forget those traditions, some times you make mistakes. Like, for instance, believing that children can be ‘improved.’
“Children cannot be improved,” he said. “At least not by playing with their genes. Human beings are human beings. All of us have good things and bad things about ourselves. If we wish to bring out the best parts of ourselves, there is a very ancient technology, also invented in China, called meditation. Let me show you how to do it—it is very easy, costs nothing, and anyone is capable of it.
“It’s fine to sit in a chair, by the way, and don’t worry about crossing your legs—but do try and keep your back straight,” he said. “And now just concentrate on your breathing. In, out, follow your breath. It sounds easy, but after a few breaths your mind will wander—you’ll start thinking about the moon, or your social media, or what you had for dinner last night, or anything. Don’t worry; that’s just how your mind works. Slowly, without reproach, return your attention to your breath. Do it for 15 minutes and then stop and go about your day, and see if you don’t feel calmer.
“That is all I have to say,” he said. “I hope that Chinese people find it useful, and also people in other parts of the world. I would like to wish everyone a happy new year. Good night!”
The picture faded to black. “Out,” said Perry. “How did it look on cellphones?”
“It looked pretty amazing,” said Matti.
The Great Hall of the People, though jammed, was absolutely silent. Chairman Xi had been talking for ten minutes, and the crowd was hanging on his words; none more so than Minister Hua who firmly believed most of the world was listening in, instead of just the adjoining six blocks.
“I speak to the people of the world,” Xi said with pride. “Chinese science is no longer an imitation of the West. The Americans have retreated from the moon, and just as with our flag, the stars belong to us now. Others turn away from genetic improvement because of superstition, but we have no superstition here, only pride in the technicians and doctors of the People’s Republic.”
For the first time in days Hua wasn’t besieged with messages—like everyone else, he’d turned off his phone before the Chairman’s talk began. He looked around—almost all of official China was on hand, including the judges of the People’s Supreme Court, the heads of the military—he could see a beaming General Youxia a few rows away, and even Colonel Wang was not scowling. Director Liu was behind him. They’d been huddling until the moment Chairman Xi began to speak, making sure that the feed from the moon was working, and planning next steps. Obviously the dam collapse was a problem they’d need to deal with soon. “Truthfully, though, it will hardly even make the news,” Liu had said. “Compared to two ladies on the moon and two babies with super brains, what’s one more flood?”
“Today China’s star has risen to new heights,” the chairman was saying. “There is no country and no force that can stop our revolution. In our unshakeable unity we will own the future.”
Out of the corner of his eye Hua could see a door opening, and an aide with a panicked look beckoning to him, and pointing at the screen of his phone. But before he went to deal with whatever it was, he stood with the others to join in a deafening ovation.