Douse the fires
Stop burning stuff--including "biomass"
Earlier this morning I published a long, long piece (far longer than can fit on Substack) in the New Yorker. It argues that the time has come for us to end—after 200,000 years—the central place of combustion in human affairs, and rely instead on the fact there’s a flaming ball of gas hanging 93 million miles away in the sky. I won’t repeat the argument here, but I do want to extend it a little.
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I concentrated mostly on coal, oil, and gas in my essay, devoting only a paragraph to the burning of biomass—trees, often—to generate power. But there’s a very real chance that cutting down forests and feeding them into power plants could grow dramatically. If coal is an 18th century technology, then burning wood is a 12th century technology—12th century BCE. It sounded appealing ten or fifteen years ago, because people reasoned that if you cut a tree another would grow in its place, eventually absorbing the carbon. But as Bill Schlesinger, the former dean of Duke’s School of the Environment, lays out in a recent piece, the math simply doesn’t work—by the time that tree grows back, the carbon emitted will have helped break the climate system.
Wood containing 43,730 tons of carbon could be obtained from the harvest of 875 acres of land with 40-year-old trees. Granted, a young forest replanted on this land would take up more carbon each year than the old forest it replaced, but it would take 40 years of regrowth to recapture the carbon from the harvest. Thus, until the year 2062, a harvest in 2022 would leave a legacy of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And, of course, the harvest would be repeated on another 875 acres in 2023. This is not a particularly helpful contribution to net zero emissions by 2050 and to reducing carbon dioxide emissions during the period of greatest impact on future climate.
The power of the “forest products” industry has so far been sufficient to ward off common sense, both here and in Europe. But people are fighting back. In Massachusetts, advocates from a hundred different groups have come together in a campaign to to ban subsidies for biomass burning. In Europe—where biomass is big business (and where many of the trees cut in the U.S. end up—activists have gone to court to try and force the EU to re-evaluate its policies. Burning wood accounts for more “renewable” power in Europe than wind and sun; it’s simply absurd, the plaintiffs point out, since
Recent studies have concluded that burning forests — with trees and organic waste processed into wood pellets and chips — generates more carbon emissions than coal per kilowatt hour. Also, the clearcutting of native forests, which already constitutes about half of the feedstock needed for pellets and chips, decreases nature’s ability to slow climate change.
International Forests Day is coming up Monday, and it should be the occasion for celebrating what intact forests we have left—celebrating, among many other things, the role they play in regulating our climate. But we rarely do. Instead, we cut them down, if not for energy than for timber, or paper bags, or whatever. Leaving big old trees standing may be the single most productive climate strategy we have—new research keeps showing just how much carbon they sequester—but it’s always a fight. At the moment, that fight is hottest on the Kootenai National Forest in Montana, where federal officials are preparing a vast clearcut in the Yaak Valley, one of the most intact ecosystems left in the U.S. A holdover from the Trump era, the timber sale would take out huge sections of ancient woods, and punch roads deep into wilderness. The writer Rick Bass, who has been leading the opposition, has used the occasion to help birth a movement that would protect old forests in America precisely for their value in the fight against global warming. As the new group Climate Forests explains on its website:
We are calling on the Biden Administration to enact a strong, lasting rule across federal public lands that protects mature and old-growth trees and forests from logging, allowign the recovery of old-growth forests that have been lost. These forests are essential to removing climate pollution and storing carbon, safeguarding wildlife, and providing clean drinking water for our communities.
We are, clearly, losing the climate fight. Forests are perhaps our best allies in that battle. We have to give them a chance to help us.
Many important notes from around the climate world this week, as the Ukraine madness brings energy policy into new and different focus
+From Joshua Doh and Connor Chung, an excellent account of why divestment works with fossil fuel companies and ‘shareholder engagement’ doesn’t. “Although a company may have good reasons to hear out investors on specific ESG issues, there are no structural incentives to fundamentally abandon its entire business, as the fossil fuel industry needs to do. When the business model is the primary source of risk, an engagement-only strategy is the wrong tool for the job.”
+Just noting that it was fifty degrees warmer than usual at the North Pole this week, even though the high Arctic is still in pitch-dark winter hibernation
+From Nick Engelfried in the invaluable Waging Nonviolence, an essay on the evolving power of the school strike movement for climate action
+The artist (and beloved cartoonist) Ed Koren and photographer Stephen Gorman have a new show up at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. “Down to the Bone” is a truly remarkable exploitation of ecological unraveling
+The truly tireless Jane Fonda has launched a new climate PAC to fight for environmental champions running for office.
+New studies find air pollution is linked to ever more human diseases, in this case auto-immune disorders like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
+The devil will be entirely in the details, but the banking giant HSBC was using new language last week when it announced a “phase-down” of its lending to the fossil fuel sector. The step is in line with “what is required to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” the bank said.
+A harrowing piece of reporting in the Wall Street Journal about life inside the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, where workers are essentially being held captive by the Russians.
Their diet has dwindled to porridge and canned food, prepared by a 70-year-old cook who at one point collapsed from exhaustion. Their phones have been confiscated and they are trailed by Russian soldiers through the nuclear plant’s labyrinth of reinforced-concrete corridors.
+A survey of the planet’s mountain guides finds that 98% are noticing the effects of climate change in the places they travel.
+Karin Kirk has a fine oped in the Montana papers explaining how the state could help with the world’s energy woes—not with oil, but with wind
Your support would be appreciated. Greatly.
And finally, a couple of somewhat somber chapters from our ongoing nonviolent epic yarn. If you want to catch up on chapters 1-54 of The Other Cheek, the archive is here
But he only slept for a little while. About two he woke, and found himself looking through the flap at a bright moon, four-fifths full, rising above a mesa on the far side of the river. He was still fully dressed, and the night was warm, so he rose slowly from the cot, folded his blanket to take with him, and quietly made his way out of the camp, following a path that crossed the tracks and headed for the water. It was so bright he had no need of the small lantern—he could, he thought, have read a book, which is what he normally would have done on a night he couldn’t sleep.
He had no book with him, however, and he hadn’t started a new one for weeks—he believed in finishing books, and he was pretty sure now he wouldn’t live long enough. He’d rarely spent much time in the desert; he found he liked the unshadowed open brightness of the moonlit night. He found himself thinking it would be nice to hike for a day through a canyon like this. That was the oddest thing about growing older, and now dying—even with the pain and weakness he had to consciously remind himself that his life was very nearly over, that he wouldn’t be doing new things.
He had read, of course, that dying people spend their time reviewing their lives, but he hadn’t felt that impulse—in fact, he’d had to fake it the day before, when he’d invented a story for the tv crew about his boyhood and a train. He hadn’t lived his life in the past, and often not even in the present. When he sat down on the tracks he knew he’d actually be thinking about what came next—that’s how his mind worked. “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope,” Samuel Johnson had written, a phrase that had stuck in his mind when he first read it long ago in school, because it defined him so well.
The cottonwoods and the willows by the water did throw a few shadows, but they were friendly. He lay down his blanket and sat on a sloping bench of rock that led into the water, close enough that he could dangle his hands—it was warmer than he expected. He tried hard to think about the shape of his life, because it seemed the proper thing to do, but always his mind slipped forward towards what came next. He wasn’t scared of dying, nor paralyzed by sadness—he was well aware in his bones that it was time, and past time. But it bothered him that he wouldn’t know how it all played out. He’d like to see what Cass turned into, and Allie—he was pretty sure both of them were special, and he gave silent thanks that Maria knew it too. He thought about all the battles he knew were underway around the world. When one entered his mind—he’d been on the phone the week before with people in Iceland still trying to stop the whale hunt, for God’s sake—he couldn’t help but think of ideas. Maybe organizing tourists on all the whale-watching boats all over the world. People made fun of the ‘save the whales crowd,’ but if people couldn’t be bothered to watch out for the single largest life form on the planet then what hope was there—maybe, he thought, people could gather outside Icelandic embassies, playing tapes of whale song. Maybe . . .
He was suddenly unsure of where he was, and it took a minute to figure out the river, the mesa on the other side. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep, he thought—he felt groggy again. He wondered how long he’d been out there. Was it brightening in the east? Was that the morning star? “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy”—that was God talking, he thought, at the start of his long soliloquy in the book of Job. God reminding Job he was a very small part of something big.
And what was that light in the distance? It looked like the headlight of a train rumbling down the tracks. Now he was confused. Had he slept that long? Was he missing the action? The action he’d summoned everyone else to? He rose as fast as he could from the ledge of rock—not very fast, he thought—and began to scramble up the path toward the camp. And now memories did come back: the nights crossing to the coast with the GIs they’d rescued at Ozbalt, the Nazis on their trail. The relief when they reached the sea and were taken aboard the American boat. The way the terror subsided. “In safe hands,” a phrase that echoed now in his head.
He could hear the train now—it seemed to be racing ahead, not slowing down. The light canted around a bend perhaps a mile down the track. Surely it should be slowing by this point? Maybe the team hadn’t gotten a message through to the railroad? Maybe people were waiting there on the tracks—old people, who had no idea about trains and whether they were slowing down or speeding up, just waiting calmly for it to stop, the way he’d promised it would. He stumbled and went down on one knee, but got back up and hurried along the path. He could see the metal of the track gleaming dully in the moonlight, could feel the pea gravel of the trackbed underfoot. He pressed on, looking for the others. For his friends. Where were they? He could see no one.
He reached the edge of the track and started across, staring at the dirt path that continued on the other side. And as he did the locomotive smashed through the night and sent his body flying through the warm air. For a minute the noise of the diesel engine filled the night, but soon the train was past the canyon, and when the echo died away the scene seemed quieter even than before, with just the lap of the river and the occasional song of the earliest morning birds.
“You’ve got your man?” Minister Hua asked, as he snagged a chunk of braised abalone off a dish on the lazy Susan in the middle of the table.
“I think so. Want to see?” said Director Liu, who pulled the table till the braised E-fu noodles with shrimp roe were in front of him.
“After,” said Hua, as he reached for the conpoy with sea moss and lettuce.
They were in a private room at a Beijing restaurant not far from the Security ministry, toasting the newly signed contract with Jimmy Lee and Mothra for the second season of the lottery, which would be announced, Director Liu thought, about a week after the upcoming inaugural drawing. Minister Hua ate at official banquets more nights than not, and Director Liu as well—it was where business got done in China. But for many of the Propaganda Department aides on hand this was a special occasion, especially since the two chiefs were high enough on the party pecking order that they paid no attention to the official party anti-corruption policy that now mandated one soup and four hot dishes. In this room, the cold appetizers had begun arriving around 8 p.m., the barbecued whole suckling pig had made his appearance by 8:30, and it was now closing in on 10 with no sign of a slowdown.
“Tell me, Miss Chen,” said Hua, addressing Liu’s young aide who had dreamed up the idea of the lottery in the first place. “I have heard of Princeton’s famous eating clubs. Do they eat like this?”
“No sir, they do not,” she said demurely. But when he raised a glass of baijiu in her direction she met his gaze—though she kept the rim of her glass a little below his as they clinked, and made sure she put her left hand beneath the glass as she held it in her right before downing the drink in a single swallow.
The first round of the lottery had gone so well—a late sales surge meant that even with the 7 new winners, the state would clear about 40 billion yuan—that she had been promoted twice inside of six months, and allowed to negotiate the new contract with Jimmy Lee’s team at Mothra—an easy negotiation since he was still wary after the problems with the new phone’s debut. In fact, Lee had made sure to give Chen a few million yuan herself, a fact which he also dutifully reported to his minder in Hua’s office. Hua considered it remarkably restrained corruption, but was glad to have it in his file. He aimed his next toast at Lee, who had not paced his dinner and was now regretting the second portion of long-tailed anchovy, not to mention the squab and bok choy. “To the Chinese space program,” he said. “May it vanquish the Americans.” They lifted glasses—Hua drained his, but Lee managed only a sip, and then excused himself quickly. “He may be Chinese-American,” said Liu quietly to his friend, “but I think the emphasis is on American.”
After dessert—a sweet soup of harsmar, the dried fat from the fallopian tubes of frogs—Hua rose and the banquet broke up. Two of the aides were too drunk to walk properly, but the restaurant staff dealt with this on a nightly basis, and both were soon in cabs. Hua and Liu, meanwhile, adjourned to a smaller, more private room, and switched from biajiu to Remy Martin. Liu pulled a computer from his briefcase, opened it, and set it on the table—when an image came on the screen, he pushed the button. “We looked fairly carefully, and we think this guy matches the characteristics,” he said. A video flashed on, showing a man in his early thirties, with a slight paunch but thick black hair; he was playing badminton. “Bao Shixian,” said director Liu. “He lives in Dalian and runs a small business wholesaling organic eggs.”
“Very popular,” said Hua. “My wife will only let the cook buy organic eggs.” “Mine as well,” said Liu. “And his apparently actually are organic, or at least he tries to make sure of it. Anyway, he has a wife”—he flashed a picture of a young woman holding a baby—“who works in a nail salon, and a six-month old baby.”
“Party member?” said Hua.
“Probationary,” said Liu. “He was invited by his block leader, who vouches for his character. He’s a good guy, but not a . . . true believer.”
“So he’ll actually go spend this money, yes?”
“We taped him in a bar with three friends last week. The bartender asked what they’d do if they won. He had a catalogue in his briefcase with a boat—the biggest boat I’ve ever seen. It comes with a helicopter, and a little submarine. So yes, I think he’d spend some money.”
“What do we know about his family?”
“Still back in the village—a little one, in the Qianshan Mountains. I would guess it’s in line for a few new villas.”
“Good, good,” said Hua. “And you’ve found the seven courtiers?”
“Identified by city so far—we wanted a real geographic spread.
Tomorrow we’ll have names. We’re not checking them as carefully, obviously, but we’ll make sure there’s nothing clearly wrong.”
“Okay,” said the minister. “Now, about the little girl. In Colorado.”
“Yes,” said Liu. “Gloria.”
“We’ve been watching her—she gets a weekly visit from emissaries of that institute, usually young women. Though sometimes the director herself visits. They always bring small gifts, and one of them is sometimes wearing the same white robes as the small girl.”
“Hmm,” said Liu.
“And the elderly professor—the one who was at the party with her, the one who knew Mandela?”
“Vukovic,” said Liu.
“Two things. It turns out he also knew Wang Dan. When he left, after his prison term for Tiananmen, he went to Harvard. Vukovic sought him out; they met, and corresponded regularly. It’s possible that Wang may even have visited in Colorado.”
“And the other thing?” said Liu.
“Vukovic was killed yesterday. By a train. In a canyon in the desert.”
“A 95-year-old man was run over by a train in the desert?” asked Liu.
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“None of it sounds quite right,” said Hua.