Discover more from The Crucial Years
'I told you so'
are the four least satisfying words in the English language.
This edition will be a touch more personal than most, because the past couple of weeks have felt personal.
I wrote the first book on what we now call the climate crisis way back in 1989, and it feels like I’ve spent the subsequent three-and-a-half decades warning that eventually we’d get to this particular July: the hottest day and week and month on record. And long before records too: it seems almost certain that this is the hottest weather on our planet in 125,000 years; Jim Hansen made a quite reasonable case Friday that it is already or soon will be hotter than it’s been for a million years, which is to say before the evolution of homo sapiens.
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In other words, this is what climate change feels like—still in the earlier stages since we’re less than halfway to the temperature our current trajectory will produce. But more than enough to, all of a sudden, start understanding that it’s entirely intolerable.
Here’s the New York Times yesterday, reporting on the heat in Laredo where the current hellish spell has killed at least ten people. One man found his brother dead in a bedroom with two broken air-conditioners. They were used to heat, of course; they’d grown up on the border. “But this was a different kind of heat. This is magnifying-the-sun-on-top-of-ants kind of heat. This is beyond anything we’ve had before.”
And here’s the Washington Post today, reporting on the heat in Phoenix, which will soon break its record of 18 straight days of heat above 110 degrees, and may well top 120 on Saturday. (The average temperature forecast for all next week, across all 24 hours, is 104.6 degrees, which would crush the city’s previous warmest week on record, which had an average temperature of 102.9 degrees.) What happens when it gets that hot? People get savage burns when they walk a few barefoot steps across a patio, or let a seatbelt buckle touch bare skin. They scald themselves with water that’s been sitting in a garden hose soaking up the sun.
On Wednesday, firefighters encountered a man sprawled in the street in north Phoenix…When firefighters arrived, the man was unconscious. There were burns all over his body. His skin was coming off and his internal temperature was 107 degrees, they said. They delivered him to the emergency room. “Basically, his brain was fried,” said firefighter Brandon Kanae, who responded to the scene.
When I read things like this, I weep for the people involved, and I also weep at my own failure. I’ve known about this crisis longer than almost anyone on earth, and I’ve done what I can think of to do, and some of it has been useful, but it hasn’t been enough. Others have done more and better, but that hasn’t been enough either. ‘I told you so’ is, in this case, just a different way of saying ‘I couldn’t figure out the right words’ or ‘I couldn’t mobilize enough others.’ Kind people say ‘you tried,’ and I have, but that’s also another way of saying ‘you blew it.’
I couldn’t even keep the crisis off my own damned doorstep. My beloved Vermont was one of many places that took it on the chin this week—huge flooding in Japan and India and China and Spain, but also in Montpelier and Ludlow and Barre and a dozen other places I know intimately. And this weekend, a second round of bucketing rainfall across the Green Mountains unleashed a landslide a half mile from my house; we’re fine, but another family saw their home buried in a roaring wall of mud. They escaped with seconds to spare because the volunteer fire chief of our tiny town arrived to warn them—a more effective warning than I’ve been able to muster.
I understand that this kind of thinking is grandiose bordering on narcissistic, and I won’t indulge myself in such pathos again. Obviously I couldn’t have stopped climate change; it is the ultimate collective problem, with only collective solutions. But to keep ourselves going we indulge in the fantasy that we will win important fights—India freed itself from British rule, after all; the Voting Rights Act passed. And so it’s okay—probably necessary—to mourn when we come up short.
The current horrors are not a reason to stop working. We know from a recent study that every tenth of a degree in temperature rise that we prevent keeps 140 million of our brothers and sisters in habitable zones on this planet. And nothing has changed my basic conviction about the key: we need to keep building huge movements to finally break the political power of the fossil fuel industry and force the emergency conversion to clean energy. When we’ve made progress—the Paris accords, say, or the Inflation Reduction Act—mass mobilizing is how we’ve done it; we have to give good politicians the room they need, we have to give bad politicians the boot, and we have to hold corporations accountable for killing us and our world. We have to keep on changing the zeitgeist.
The next round of mobilizations has got to be bigger and it’s got to come soon; this week makes clear we’re in the gnarly rapids now, and hearing the roar of the waterfall around the bend. The dawning El Niño, which will produce worse chaos than we’ve seen so far, offers what I think may be our last viable political opening to make the large-scale global corrections in time to really limit the heating. Stay tuned for plans for such mass mobilization; we will keep trying because we still have much to gain.
But this week it’s worth acknowledging how much we’ve already lost.
In other climate and energy news:
+A federal judge has, for the moment, stopped work on the MVP pipeline in the Virginias; opponents of this boondoggle are arguing that Congress overreached when, in a gift to Senator Manchin, it mandated approval of the gas line. Sierra Club president Ben Jealous: “Congress cannot mandate that federal regulators throw caution to the wind — environmental laws are more than just mere suggestions, and must be adhered to.” The Supreme Court may end up making the call.
+From Ian Edwards, a beautifully argued case for why pension plans should be divesting from fossil fuel and thus taking the lead in building a safe world. They bear a fiduciary duty, after all, which means they should be making sure future retirees will have
“The right to choose how you live in your golden years — choices that should be available to you then as they are now.
A future of suitable social and environmental quality, curated by your fiduciaries to ensure that it’s a world worth retiring into.”
+Food and Water Watch has a new report outlining the problems with relying on carbon capture and storage—basically, it’s an effort by the fossil fuel industry to get a license to keep on burning coal, gas and oil. But
after billions of dollars in public and private investments over decades, there are no carbon capture success stories — only colossal failures. One of the largest was the Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, once the poster child for CO2 removal. But the plant consistently underperformed, before it finally closed for good last year.
Another high-profile example — the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, touted as what would have been the largest capture project in the world — finally abandoned its plans for carbon capture as its last-ditch effort to stay afloat, and the plant is scheduled for demolition.
+My longtime colleague Hoang Hong continues to rot in a Vietnamese jail for the crime of standing up to the coal industry; climate tech entrepeneur Matt Gordon offers a noble argument on her behalf.
The progress of unborking the climate relies on a collaboration between two forces: The climate activists who create the will for change, and the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who create the means of change. These two groups are not always fully aligned, but they require each other. An attack on any of us is an attack on all of us.
In the Nation, Darsen Hover has the details to show that her case is far from unique: around the world, governments are treating climate protesters as terrorists.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, the media response to the Just Stop Oil protesters, who have been staging a series of dramatic protests demanding an end to all new oil and gas projects in the country, has been even more extreme than coverage in the US. The Daily Mail routinely refers to the group as eco-zealots and an eco-mob, and recently published an opinion column calling the group a “deranged criminal eco-terrorist cult.” The Telegraph published a column headlined “Will the environmental extremists of Just Stop Oil slowly morph into terrorists?”; just yesterday, the paper ran another piece comparing the group to both the January 6 rioters and the QAnon movement.
In the U.S., meanwhile, two activists face up to ten years in prison for smearing water-based paint on the plastic casing around a Degas sculpture. That’s the definition of over-charging. The New York Times offered what seemed to me a tin-eared account of how much stress such protests are causing museum directors, offering only the barest of passing nods to the idea that there might be more than simple vandalism happening here.
+From Ryan Gunderson and William Charles, an argument that property destruction by activists—what they call ‘climatage’—is both understandable and almost certainly counterproductive.
Despite the appeal, property destruction as a climate change strategy will likely prove counterproductive for at least three reasons, deduced from research on social movements: (1) property destruction will likely decrease public support for climate activists and climate policy, (2) property destruction will almost certainly increase state repression, a fight that climate activists will likely lose, and (3) alternative tactics that do not involve property destruction will likely prove more effective.
+If California manages to keep the lights on during this weekend’s savage heat, a large reason will be a tenfold spike in battery storage over the last three years. Keaton Peters explains how this kind of solution will work even better as we build out more transmission lines. And here’s an account of Denmark’s success in growing renewables. The secret sauce"?
Another key factor in Denmark’s renewable energy success story is its emphasis on community involvement. Many of Denmark’s wind turbines are owned by local communities, who benefit directly from the electricity they generate. This has helped to build public support for renewable energy and has made it a central part of Denmark’s energy landscape.
+Hannah Ritchie has an interesting essay in the Guardian on why people with different preferred climate solutions (nukes! solar panels!) might want to stop beating each other up.
Such inner-circle battles aren’t specific to climate. They are everywhere. The American economist Michael Munger wrote about this very same tension in economic policy, describing how the world is split into “directionalists” and “destinationists”. Directionalists back any solution that takes us towards the final goal. In climate, this means they support anything that puts a notable dent in emissions. Destinationists are less flexible: they have an ideal outcome in mind. They block and reject anything that doesn’t fit their perfect vision. If they want to see a car-less world, they push against electric vehicles (EVs), even if they would cut emissions by a lot.
By the way, a new study finds that solar, wind and nuclear all have quite small carbon footprints; the argument that it takes too much energy to build them is incorrect.
For example, the study finds that 11% of the energy generated by a coal-fired power station is offset by energy needed to build the plant and supply the fuel, as the chart below shows. This is equivalent to saying that one unit of energy invested in coal power yields nine units of electricity.
Nuclear power is twice as good as coal, with the energy embedded in the power plant and fuel offsetting 5% of its output, equivalent to an Energy Return on Investment of 20:1. Wind and solar perform even better, at 2% and 4% respectively, equivalent to EROIs of 44:1 and 26:1.
+Jeff Goodell has a new book out, always a cause for celebration, and this one could not be more timely: it’s an exploration of how heat kills.
+The next really bad idea in American energy policy is the rapid buildout of LNG terminals on the Gulf Coast. At least a few of our congressional leaders are trying to sound the alarm
Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) joined 39 colleagues, led by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representatives Jared Huffman (CA-02), Raul Grijalva (AZ-07), and Nanette Barragán (CA-44), in a bicameral letter urging greater scrutiny on the entire supply chain of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – a fossil fuel – in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidance on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate chaos impacts.
“Our ability to combat the worst impacts of the climate crisis depends, to a significant degree, on whether the United States approves proposed LNG pipeline and export terminal projects on top of the already-substantial LNG infrastructure,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter to Brenda Mallory, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). “Existing LNG infrastructure already has a disproportionate impact on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities; this will only be exacerbated with the addition of the proposed projects. […] CEQ’s guidance should include examples and best practices for how agencies should conduct meaningful engagement to ensure that relevant agencies conduct proper and adequate analysis of the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of LNG infrastructure. CEQ must also ensure that adverse impacts to environmental justice communities and cumulative impacts are determinative on permitting decisions for LNG infrastructure and facilities.”
And now the Sierra Club, the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, and the City of Port Isabel have filed suit to stop two such projects.
"Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG are tearing up the land," said Juan Mancias, Carrizo Comecrudo Tribal Chairman. "The FERC and the LNG companies have never consulted with the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe about their plans to destroy our sacred lands to build these gas plants that do not help our people and would only benefit the fossil fuel corporations and their shareholders. We won't allow these disastrous gas processing plants to move forward and poison the health of our tribal members and destroy sacred lands and burial sites. We will fight to protect our ancestral heritage."
+Kevin Williams argues persuasively that Elon Musk’s terrible stewardship of Twitter means we’d be foolish to let him effectively control the nation’s EV charging network
My biggest fear is that any of the CEOs that have made deals with Tesla will cross Musk in some way that he deems unacceptable. Perhaps they’ll have concerns with charging speed or quality of service, (Lucid and Hyundai/Kia EVs have reportedly had speed issues using V3 Superchargers), or maybe they’ll want something more out of the still-undefined V2L capability of NACS. Then the deal will unwind, and the non-Tesla clientele will find themselves unable to use the Superchargers they thought they were entitled to. That would be a failure that I don’t think even the most devout EV enthusiast could overlook.
I hope it’s becoming obvious why I called this newsletter the Crucial Years. Thanks to those who pay the modest voluntary subscription fee (without getting even a totebag or a t-shirt); you good souls keep it coming free for all.