Discover more from The Crucial Years
And other stories of trying to tell the truth
The picture above comes from Hanoi, in 2009. It’s one of 5,100 demonstrations that took place in 181 countries on the same day in October—a kind of coming out party for the global climate movement and, CNN reckoned at the time, “the most widespread day of political protest in the planet’s history.” All the pictures that streamed in over Flickr that weekend moved me, but some almost to tears: Americans still think “war” when they think Vietnam, and they think so with guilt. It was astonishing to me to be collaborating with people who could easily have spurned anything that originated in America.
Please support this newsletter, but only if you can afford it. Otherwise just enjoy it (and make use of it!) for free.
The reason we had a demonstration that day in Vietnam was Hoang Thi Minh Hong. Hong, like so many other people around the world, seized the opportunity to try and raise awareness about the climate crisis. And she’s never stopped. The definition of a good organizer is someone that people like to be around, and tiny Hong is effervescent; every picture I have of her, including a couple from friends who visited her this spring, show her beaming. She made it to to the US where she spent time at Columbia, and as an Obama fellow; she made it to Antarctica, and onto lists of the most influential women in Asia. Here’s the picture of when she was named a hero of the climate.
But she kept on telling the truth, which in Vietnam is a hard truth: few countries face more chaos and trauma from a changing climate, because the Mekong Delta is low to the sea; already rice farmers are trying to deal with rising salt levels, and many are failing. And yet Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy has kept burning coal, and Hong kept pointing that out. And now it’s caught up with her.
She was arrested last week on “tax evasion” charges after the offices of her CHANGE NGO were raided—she’d actually shut the group down after the arrests of other environmentalists on similar charges. They are, of course, bogus. Two decades ago Vladimir Putin started figuring out how to make sure that NGOs, especially any with foreign ties, were kept under his thumb; impenetrable bureaucratic rules were the key. Similar tactics have been adopted by other would-be autocrats from India to Turkey to, of course, China, and many more. We could not hold that global demonstration that we held in 2009 today; simply speaking the truth is too dangerous in too many places.
Including, of course, some places in this country. Last week that three activists fighting the Cop City project in Atlanta were arrested on charges of money laundering. When they were arraigned on Friday, their defense attorney said, “My real concern here is if you look at these warrants ... of what they’ve done with the money that prompts both the money laundering and the charitable fraud, I mean, $37.11 to build yard signs. What could be more First Amendment activity than getting materials to build yard signs?” Their offense, clearly, was telling their truth, loudly.
If you’re powerful enough, of course, you can tell the truth and nothing happens. Last week State Farm and Allstate both made it clear they wouldn’t be selling new home insurance policies in California—the cost of rebuilding homes after wildfires had gotten too high. As a result, more Californians will get to rely on the state-offered insurance plan, a last resort. But truth-telling actually isn’t in the blood of the insurance industry—the real news last week was one big company after another dropping out of the Net Zero Insurance Alliance. As Reuters put it, “the group has been buffeted by growing political opposition from some Republicans in the United States, who say the group could be violating antitrust laws by working together to reduce clients' carbon emissions. This month 23 U.S. state attorneys general told NZIA members that the group's targets and requirements appeared to violate both federal and state antitrust laws.” Cowards, all.
Hong had a lot more backbone than that. She got the signals from the government, but she didn’t shut up. Here’s what she tweeted out in early May, on a day when Asia was suffering through a record-breaking heatwave:
“Yeah, I am melting like a piece of butter on frying pan. Climate change is happening no matter what we do. But we should still do everything to not make it worse. I had to shut down my NGO due to pressures, but I’ll find another way.”
We need to help her. So far the UN human rights office has issued a powerful denunciation, and the State Department a shorter and more muted version. But the U.S. can do much more. John Kerry, our global climate envoy, last December negotiated an important $15.5 billion climate transition deal with Vietnam, even after the country had jailed another activist. At that moment, the head of the Goldman Prize Foundation said, “It’s really time for the U.S. to take the gloves off and make it very clear to Vietnam that this won’t be tolerated.” But apparently the U.S. never made that clear, and now Hong sits in a Vietnamese jail and her family waits for her release. It’s time for Obama to do some tweeting, and it’s time for Kerry to get on the phone, and if necessary on the plane; please write to the State Department with that message (look down to the bottom of this form for an easy way to do so). That Vietnam was willing to make this kind of climate deal resulted directly from decades of advocacy by brave people like Hong. Abandoning them is wrong in every way.
In other climate and energy news:
+A truly upbeat report from Canary Media on the boom in clean energy manufacturing underway in the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act. It focuses on Weirton, W.Va., an old steel town I went to when those mills were going strong; now there will be an 800,000 square foot plant assembling iron-air batteries for utility scale power storage.
Last August, Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act and instituted direct support for domestic manufacturing of clean energy supply chains, as well as tax credits for developers who install domestically sourced equipment at their clean power plants.
The industry responded like a lightning bolt. Solar panel factories are opening and expanding across the nation. Lithium-ion battery production is set to grow tenfold by 2027, according to data from Clean Energy Associates consultancy. Form broke ground in Weirton less than a year after the passage of the incentives.
“We’ve seen, in the last six months, more investment in clean energy manufacturing than we have in the last 20 years,” said Scott Moskowitz, senior director of market strategy and public affairs for Qcells, which recently said it would spend another $2.5 billion to expand its solar manufacturing base in Georgia.
+According to the Economist, so much of China’s manufacturing base is built along low-lying parts of the Pearl River Delta that by 2050 a coastal flooding event could affect ten percent of its GDP. It’s one reason China’s leaders have been installing renewable energy far faster than any place on the planet.
+A new report from Oxfam makes clear that rich nations are nowhere near meeting pledge they made in 2009 to provide $100 billion annually in climate finance to the poor world—and the money they are providing, according to a new report from Reuters, is going to vitally important projects like a…coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh and a chain of Asian gelato stores.
+Solar panels more European electricity than coal in May, for the first time. Good news that, but as Bloomberg reports, grid operators are having to learn some new tricks to adapt
Better coping with the ebb and flow of renewable generation will require a new kind of flexibility in the power system, which wasn’t necessary when all electricity came from a few giant fossil fuel and nuclear plants that could be turned up or down depending on demand.
“Our current power system wasn’t planned for these kinds of flexibility needs,” said Thorsten Lenck, project manager at Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende.
There are various ways to adapt. Batteries connected to the grid could use power during the sunniest or windiest parts of the day to sell when renewables aren’t producing as much. Consumers could also be incentivized to use power during times of peak production. That could be particularly important as more electric vehicles hit the roads and households switch from traditional boilers to heat pumps.
“We’re going to have an unprecedented amount of solar production this summer and it tends to increase the volatility in power prices,” said Joke Steinwart, analyst at Aurora Energy Research. “This presents big opportunities for flexible technologies like batteries.”
+The remarkable En-ROADS computer program, which lets you play with many different variables in an effort to decarbonize the world, has added some new features, including one that makes clear just how counterproductive biomass burning is:
Cutting down trees and burning wood for bioenergy releases stored carbon from forests and soil into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. These emissions are shown in the CO2 Gross Emissions from Forest Bioenergy” graph (under Graphs > CO2 Emissions). Carbon from trees is released immediately when wood is burned, whereas carbon in the soil is released over several decades after the soil has been disturbed by tree harvesting. The bioenergy subsidy causes the blue line of the Current Scenario to depart from the black line of the Baseline Scenario.
+A powerful new study from Stand.earth shows that the biggest healthcare providers have billions invested in fossil fuels, even though their combustion causes one death in five on this planet. Burning hydrocarbons is like burning cigarettes: unsafe for human health, and yet “the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, Ascension Health System, and the nation’s largest health system HCA Healthcare have over $4.6 billion invested in fossil fuels.”
+Meanwhile, a new paper from Energy Research and Social Science makes clear that phasing out fossil fuels will go a long way towards ending the racially disparate health impacts of our energy model. It concludes:
The U.S. should implement a managed phase out of fossil fuel production to drive absolute pollution reductions in sacrifice zones and to align our policy with 1.5 °C pathways.
Phasing out fossil fuel production is the surest way to remove the sources of pollution that are harming communities all along fossil fuel supply chains, and it is a necessary component for limiting warming to 1.5 °C. Such “supply-side” policies likely have distinct “economic and political advantages” for decarbonization and should be paired with similarly ambitious “demand-side” policies.
+As people gather for Thursday’s White House protests against the MVP pipeline, it’s worth remembering that a single gas leak from a pipeline run by the same company qualified as last year’s worst single climate disaster, releasing enough greenhouse gases to erase the emissions gains from about half the electric cars sold in the United States last year. Meanwhile, even if the debt ceiling bill shamefully tries to shut off all review of the MVP boondoggle, it’s worth remembering that the actual safety of the pipe is now in question because some of the pipe may have been sitting out in the sun for years, getting brittle.
+If anyone’s interested, Columbia University released the first tranche of their oral histories of the Obama administration—17 long interviews, including mine with some details of the KXL fight
+I hope you’ve been careful about limiting your showers, because a government official in India just drained an entire reservoir to retrieve the cell phone he’d dropped in the water while taking a selfie. “By the time it was found, the phone was too water-logged to work.”
+It’s not just climate: new research from Europe’s Potsdam Institute finds that humans have blown past seven of the eight ‘safe and just’ planetary boundaries they’ve been monitoring.
A key breakthrough in this paper, the authors write, is the translation of social justice considerations into the same units of measurement as the Earth systems, such as degrees Celsius for temperature or cubic kilometers for water use.
For instance, nitrogen and phosphorus from farms spill into waterways and cause oxygen-less “dead zones” in rivers and seas, with consequences for drinking water too in some areas. The global limit for excessive nitrogen is 119 million metric tons a year and 10 million for phosphorus, according to the paper.
To address air pollution, the targets the scientists set aim to minimize the difference in the concentration of aerosols between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, while establishing an upper bound for harmful small particle pollution. Aerosols from both natural and human sources, from volcanoes to tailpipes, cause illness and premature death around the world.
+Michael Grunwald has an excellent essay on the everlasting environmental boondoggle that is ethanol
Biofuels are like a return to the horse-and-buggy era, when farmers had to grow millions of acres of oats and hay for transportation fuel, except now the crops are processed through ethanol plants instead of animals.
By 2050, the world will need to grow an additional 7.4 quadrillion calories every year to fill nearly 10 billion bellies, while ending deforestation and other wilderness destruction to meet the emissions targets in the Paris climate accord. Biofuels make both jobs much harder.
+It’s not just Paris. Or Copenhagen. Brussels, long known as one of the most car-centric cities in Europe, has become a bike haven
The share of bike commuters has tripled in just four years, and transit ridership has already bounced back to pre-Covid levels. In 2017 cars accounted 64% of the miles traveled within the city; by 2021 the figure had fallen under 50%. Meanwhile, a huge pedestrian zone has emerged in the city center.
in August, 2022 the city dramatically reduced through-traffic within the Pentagon, the historic center of Brussels that had once been surrounded by medieval walls. The city utilized several tactics to restrict car access. First, two-way streets were converted to one-way, making it impractical for drivers to use them to get from one side of the city to the other. Second, flexible bollards and automatic camera ticketing would allow permitted cars to enter certain streets, while preventing others. And third, hard infrastructure blocked some roadways entirely from car traffic. The Pentagon now includes one of the two largest pedestrian-only zones in Europe (the other is Venice), and the city is replicating the approach in other neighborhoods.
+Aware that it has a sustainability problem, ‘fast fashion’ has started making pledges that it will build ‘circularity’ into its operations, and recycle its wares. The always insightful Ken Pucker, former COO of Timberland, takes to the pages of Stanford Social Innovation Review to explain why this will be…harder than it sounds
A recent study estimated the capital costs at between $6 and $7 billion to build out infrastructure to support one-third of the recycling capacity for Europe alone. These capital costs need to be weighed in light of the cheap costs of virgin fibers. According to Georgia Institute of Technology materials engineer Youjiang Wang, “It’s so cheap to produce polyester, cotton, and other fabrics that there’s little profit margin unless the recycling processes are very inexpensive.”
Finally, expensive recycling infrastructure is not likely the biggest challenge to achieving circularity. Instead, the largest barriers are the absence of collections infrastructure and the norms of consumer behavior. According to Zalando’s head of circularity, Laura Coppen, “the behavior gap is really big and particularly large in the circular space.
+Great reporting from Sabrina Shankman in today’s Boston Globe, on how Greentown Labs, the area’s biggest climate-tech incubator, is partnering with Saudi Aramco, the oil company that wants to ….keep expanding its oil output
“This is a really bad look for them,” said Collin Rees, US program manager for theadvocacy group Oil Change International. “What you are doing when you’re partnering with fossil fuel companies is actively perpetuating their political power, when in fact we need to be doing the opposite.”
+File this under “glad I’m getting on in years.” The Guardian reports on a new study about rapidly growing light pollution:
In 2016, astronomers reported that the Milky Way was no longer visible to a third of humanity and light pollution has worsened considerably since then. At its current rate most of the major constellations will be indecipherable in 20 years, it is estimated
If you can afford without undue hardship to pay the modest and voluntary subscription fee, then thank you; if you can’t, no worries.