If this isn't an emergency, what is?
Time to get presidentially serious about climate
The Biden administration put virtually all of their climate eggs in the Manchin basket, and now that he’s fried them, the White House is scrambling to react.
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We saw the first response on Wednesday in a presidential speech from the site of an old coal plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, and it was rhetorically strong. After a joke about living in the house of the Senator from Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse, get it?), Biden said
I come here today with a message: As President, I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger. And that’s what climate change is about. It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger.
The health of our citizens and our communities is literally at stake.
The U.N.’s leading international climate scientists called the latest climate report nothing less than, quote, “code red for humanity.” Let me say it again: “Code red for humanity.” It’s not a group of political official — elected officials. These are the scientists.
But the remedies on offer that day were weak tea: some federal money for cooling centers during heatwaves, opening up some offshore areas for wind leasing. These were clearly designed as a holding action: behind the scenes, various officials were telling reporters that they were trying to figure out if and how to declare a climate emergency and take firmer action. John Kerry promised he would—that it was just “a matter of timing.” But the inside word was that chief of staff Ron Klain was balking, perhaps because he feared it would become an issue in the fall elections.
Not an unreasonable fear—but since the GOP is already campaigning on the idea that the Green New Deal (never proposed, much less enacted) is raising gas prices, it may not make that much difference. Especially if the White House managed to get out in front and explain precisely why clean energy helps in the inflation fight. (Analyses here and here). In any event, clean energy action polls well, because most people understand we’ve got a serious problem. Even, an emergency.
Here’s a list of the 79 things that presidents have declared an emergency to combat. Some of them meet anyone’s definition—FDR and the bank holiday at the start of his term; calling up the National Guard after 9/11—but a lot of the rest, though doubtless useful, don’t seem to fit a standard definition. (Executive order 13396, signed by George W. Bush, required the “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in Côte d'Ivoire.”)
But the climate crisis? We watched his week as temperatures in Europe smashed all historic records. The UK has the longest running temperature record on the planet, dating back to the 17th century. That means a given place—London, say—has tens of thousands of daily temperature marks. That makes it incredibly unlikely to set a new high mark—but if you were going to, it would almost certainly come by a tenth of a degree. Not by three degrees Fahrenheit, which is what happened Tuesday. It was a replay of the shocking heat dome that settled over the northwest last summer, letting Canada break its old high temperature mark by 8 degrees. And both of those happened with the planet was in an a La Niña cold period. Saints preserve us when the next El Niño hits.
With a presidential emergency declaration, much serious action would be possible. Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity has been at the forefront of laying out the potential actions a declaration would enable; here’s a paper she and Maya Golden-Krasner produced this week. Among other things, the president could halt crude oil exports, stop new gas and oil leases, and restrict investment in overseas hydrocarbon development. On the financial front, “Restricting the estimated hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. financial investments directed toward fossil fuel projects abroad will help reduce the financial viability of overseas fossil fuel infrastructure, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Pursuant to his NEA and IEEPA powers, the president can prohibit financial transfers of any banking institution or other persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to address the climate emergency.”
This is not a no-brainer. Powers that President Biden uses will be available to President DeSantis too; in a functioning democracy, regular legislative order should let us address even the most pressing problems. But thanks to Manchin, Congress has kept alive its 30-year streak of doing nothing much about the climate crisis. Big Oil has so gamed our political system that the federal government has been rendered helpless.
And now the crowded planet is on fire. The president shouting out that fact won’t make the situation more dangerous; it may give him the tools to help us finally start to work on the scale the physics demands.
If you’d like the president to declare a climate emergency, there’s a helpful form from Third Act here that lets you send a message.
In other news from around the world of climate and energy:
+Not surprisingly, but no less tragically, India’s heatwave is hitting its poorest residents harder than its more affluent ones. Among other things, money equal trees, so:
Disadvantaged areas trying to accommodate lots of people often end up with more hard surfaces like concrete that radiate the sun’s heat into the surrounding air, boosting temperatures.
+A new analysis shows that the world’s oil and gas industry has produced, on average, $3 billion a day in profits over the last 50 years. It’s no wonder that they’ve spent most of that period engaged in climate disinformation,and also no wonder, in the words of the report’s author, that the sum has been sufficient to “buy every politician, every system.” A powerful new report from the California Climate Accountability project report how that’s happened in the Golden State, where
the oil and gas industry has rigged the system in Sacramento, using intensive lobbying, campaign contributions to influence legislators, and an aggressive effort to reframe the continued burning of fossil fuels as consistent with climate action. Many legislators who say they support climate action go on to accept oil money, and then take or skip votes, ensuring that environmental bills die.
+As yet another hurricane season looms, organizers along the Gulf Coast are highlighting the ‘cozy relationship’ between the big banks and the LNG industry.
The six largest U.S. banks – JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs – are some of the biggest fossil fuel financiers in the world, pouring $44 billion into the top fracked gas (also called liquefied natural gas or LNG) import and export companies in the last 6 years alone.
+Newly uncovered documents show that '“a US-based libertarian coalition has spent years pressuring the Canadian government to limit how much Indigenous communities can push back on energy development on their own land.” The Atlas Network—(major Ayn Rand shoutout) calls itself a “worldwide freedom movement” and has nearly 500 partners, including thinktanks like the Manhattan Institute. Other powerful partners include the Cato Institute, a thinktank co-founded by Charles Koch in 1977.
+Zeke Hausfather and Jane Flegal with some interesting data on just how far we’ve overdrawn our carbon account. And some interesting numbers on what it’s going to cost us:
Even if we succeed in reducing the cost of permanent carbon removal to $100 a ton, which would be a major technical achievement, it would cost around $22 trillion to reverse warming by one-tenth of one degree Celsius.
+The U.S. passes the 5% mark for electric vehicle sales—and Bloomberg (which has been doing great reporting of late) argues that this is the tipping point for a rapid run towards electric vehicles. Meanwhile a new study finds we could move this trendline faster by giving rebates, not tax credits, for EV purchases.
+Good: more affordable housing in places that need it, like Vermont. Bad: too much of it is being built with fossil fuel heating systems. We can do two good things at once
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Our epic nonviolent yarn is almost fully unwound! If you want to read the first 84 chapters of The Other Cheek, you can find them in the archive.
They gathered that night, the last full night of the year, in Father Aaron’s office. He’d surrendered his small adjoining apartment so that Delmy and her children would have someplace quiet to sleep; now, before people settled down for the night on the cots that lined the rectory halls, he said “If anyone would like to partake, I can offer you communion. Normally its reserved for Catholics, but there is a provision for ‘exceptional circumstances,’ and tonight seems to qualify. I think that the Pope has made it clear that I’m to do what I can for you. And this is one of the few things I can offer.”
“You’ve given us your church,” said Maria.
“Not mine. Maybe the parish council’s,” he said with a smile.
“I’d like communion,” said Allie, kneeling while he quickly blessed the wafers and wine.
“Me too,” said Gloria.
“You’re not old enough,” said Delmy. “You haven’t had your first communion.”
“Old enough tonight,” said Father Aaron.
Maria knelt, and to everyone’s mild surprise so did Matti, with Flora standing solemnly beside him. Cass and MK looked on, smiling; Wei and Momo watched curiously; Perry and Professor Lee, hunched over keyboards in a corner of the room, seemed not to have heard.
“The body and blood of Christ, broken for you,” murmured Father Aaron as he served the small congregation; he then knelt and indicated to Maria that she should offer him the elements. “So be it.”
As they lingered for a moment in the silence, they could hear the chanting still drifting up from the street. “Send Them Back, Send Them Back.”
“It’s time for bed, girls,” said Delmy. Gloria circled the room, hugging everyone. She asked Wei if she and Momo would come sleep with her, and they followed her into the bedroom, holding hands. Flora just stood still, clutching Matti’s pocket, till he said “go to bed, I’ll see you in the morning,” and she followed her mother.
“Okay,” said Maria, when they were out of earshot, “situation report time. As you know, things went well at SGI today—they were able to delay the various authorities until we were safely here and until there was enough attention that they couldn’t easily come for us. The word from Professor Kinnison is that both the FBI and the Chinese agents are monitoring only, and I think if we stay safely inside that’s likely to be the case as long as the hubbub lasts. Which should certainly be through tomorrow.”
“After that?” asked Allie.
“It depends, I guess,” said Maria. “Partly on if we manage to pull off our plan. Matti, I imagine that at any rate you’ll be safe—they seem to want you mostly to prevent whatever we’ve got going. Delmy and the girls? Who knows—we’ve had to call attention to the fact that they’re here illegally in order to help save Gloria, but if they’re actually convinced she’s the DL we certainly can’t let her get sent back to Guatemala. They’d have her in a minute. At any rate, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof—is that right, Father?”
“So it says in Matthew,” he said.
“I think we’re good through tomorrow. Barbara, Perry—what luck with the passwords?”
“No luck,” said Perry. “Not yet. We’ve got programs running, but they’re designed to crack random passwords—strings of numbers and the like. We don’t know enough about the people who set up this operation. We need what they call social engineering more than we need the tools we’ve got.” He carefully didn’t look at Matti as he said this.
“Meanwhile, all’s reasonably well in Arunachal,” said Barbara. “I checked in with the DL’s team about an hour ago. The flow along the Brahmaputra has almost stopped completely, which they think means the dam will crack any time, but as far as they can tell everyone’s been safely evacuated, at least as far down as Assam. They’ve alerted Indian authorities downstream, but of course Delhi is wary of getting in a fight with Beijing, so they’re being quiet.”
“Is the DL ready to go if we do manage to get the tech up and running?” Maria asked.
“He is, and we’ve told him to be fast—if we manage the hack, we almost certainly won’t have long before the Chinese shut it down again,” she said. “Of course, ‘fast’ is not really a DL mode of operation. He can lecture for three, four, five hours at a time—not really an elevator pitch kind of guy.”
“He’ll manage, I imagine,” said Maria.
“Are you doing okay?” Cass asked.
“I’m doing okay,” said Maria. “Not great—there’s a part of me that thinks I’ve mishandled everything from the day I left the convent, and certainly from the day I sent Matti packing. There’s a big part of me that wishes Marko were here to talk to.”
“He would definitely be enjoying this—he’d definitely be taking notes,” said Cass. “I’ve actually been taking a few myself, just for the archive. It’s not often that you get someone like the Pope involved—in fact, I think we might have to create a new category in the files for whatever it is we’re doing today.”
“Sister Noreen says she’ll have breakfast for us at 7,” said Father Aaron. “Early mass is at 8, though I don’t know if the police are going to be letting people in. We’ll see; sleep peacefully, everyone.”
People began to brush teeth and settle into cots, except for the computer duo that remained at work. But MK noticed Matti quietly leave the room, and after a few moments she followed. A half-opened door at the end of the hall unnerved her for a moment—she worried suddenly he’d gone down to the street to find the Chinese. But when she opened it, the staircase led up, into the bell tower of the church. She climbed a flight, and saw him sitting on the next set of stairs—it wasn’t fully open to the night air, but they’d left the insulated part of the building, and when he breathed a puff of white hung in front of his mouth.
“Cold up here,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute, I’m going to get a coat.” He looked at her but didn’t say anything.
When she returned, swaddled in a parka and with one for him, he took it silently, and just sat there, staring into the half-darkness. It was easier to hear the chants up here: “The Law is the Law,” “U-S-A.”
MK didn’t say anything, just sat a couple of stairs below Matti, hands jammed in pockets. A quarter hour passed in silence, and suddenly Matti blurted out “why doesn’t she talk?”
“Who?” said MK.
“Flora,” said Matti. “I know she can talk—I’ve heard her talking to her mother. But she just stares at me.”
“You’re clearly special to her,” said MK.
“I have no idea why, though,” said Matti. “How old is she?”
“She’s going on three.”
“She’s so little.”
“She apparently didn’t get to eat much in her first year in Guatemala,” said MK. “Things were tough.”
“Gloria seems fine.”
“Gloria has her own issues, but she was three when things got bad—and when you’re three, you’re a lot developed,” said MK. “Mostly, maybe.”
“What got bad?”
“As I understand it—you’ll have to ask Maria for details if you want them—Delmy’s husband was murdered on the way home from work. He was a taxi driver, and he hadn’t paid a ‘tax’ that the street gangs were collecting in their part of Guatemala City. He was killed a block from home. The girls . . . saw him. Lying there.”
“That’s why they came?” he asked.
“Apparently,” said MK. “It’s not exactly uncommon. The murder rates in Central America are the highest in the world. And when girls there reach a certain age—well, the odds of a really happy ending are not high.”
They sat for another few minutes in silence.
“Let me ask you something,” said MK. “You really think she needs to be improved?”
“Who,” asked Matti.
“Flora,” said MK. “Like, if you could go back into Delmy’s womb, and pull out the fertilized egg, and tweak it some, would you do it?”
“I don’t know,” said Matti. “Like, you could make her happier maybe. More dopamine, maybe?”
“Let’s set aside that no one who works as a taxi driver will ever have the chance,” said MK. “Let’s pretend we could work to change the world. Which change do you want—a world where you can fiddle with embryos, or a world where fewer kids have to watch their fathers get murdered?”
“Both?” said Matti.
“Yeah, but that’s not how the world works,” said MK. “There’s a world where everyone’s busy trying to be an individual—that’s the world where people are working on superbabies. And there’s a world where people are busy trying to build solidarity—a world where they don’t always put themselves first.”
“That’s unrealistic,” said Matti. “People do put themselves first. That’s just—that’s evolution.”
“Well, then explain Maria,” said MK. “Explain Cass—you were very right to be attracted to her, by the way; she’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever come across, not to mention she’s bright. And cute.”
“I blew that,” said Matti.
“You sure did,” said MK.
“I can’t explain them,” said Matti. “I just think they’re . . . not normal.”
“Do you feel any of it yourself?”
“Any of what?” Matt asked
“The—the feeling like you want to help others?”
“I don’t know,” said Matti.
“Let me ask it another way. How come you took communion tonight?”
“Because . . . I could tell Flora wanted me to?”
“That’d be my guess,” said MK.
“How’d it make you feel?”
“It made me feel stupid,” said Matti. “It seems ridiculous to me. Some ancient old guy. I mean, we have church in Norway too, but no one ever goes.”
“Kind of how I feel too,” said MK. “I’m not religious, exactly. But you heard the words, right? ‘My body, broken for you’? You know it’s about when Jesus was on the cross, right?”
“Sort of,” said Matti. “It still feels dumb.”
“Granted,” said MK. “How’d it feel when Cass and Perry and I showed up to help you out the other day?”
Angry, at least at first,” said Matti. “Like, I can take care of myself.”
“You’re good at taking care of yourself,” said MK. “You’ve risen fast, you’ve gone far. And you’ve done it by looking out for yourself all the time. Like, um, taking credit for Cass’s idea about the DL.”
“Well, she thought it up, but it was me that actually got it going.”
“Yep, and there’s something there. You have drive, and drive is good. But how does it feel?”
“Being out on your own all the time. Having to be the star. Working to make sure you’re the winner.”
“Don’t know,” said Matti.
“My guess is it feels a little lonely,” said MK. “Look, I’m no Cass. I’m from a tough place, I’ve had to pull myself up, better myself. I’ve done some looking out for myself. Allie too. But I’ve paid attention to—to what feels good. What feels good is being part of something bigger than you are, not being bigger than everyone else.”
“That’s not—maybe I wasn’t raised like that,” said Matti.
“I’m not completely surprised,” said MK.
“I mean, my parents were good parents,” said Matti. “But they’re diplomats. They have to travel. Usually I went with them, but we didn’t stay places for long. Not long enough to make so many friends, maybe. I mean, I didn’t have it rough. No gang shot my Dad.”
“There are different kinds of rough,” said MK.
Again they sat in silence for a long moment.
“What will happen if they don’t—if they can’t figure out how to get into the broadcast tomorrow?” Matti asked.
“What do you mean?” said MK.
“I mean, what will happen? What will people do?”
“I don’t know the specifics,” said MK. “No one does. But I know what Cass and Maria and Allie and Perry will be doing in a month, or six months, or six years. They’ll be helping—they’ll be working on something designed to make things better for someone somewhere. Because that’s what they do. Because it’s—it’s what they do. I hope I’ll be doing it too.”
They sat in silence for a minute more, and then MK got up and gave Matti a kiss on the cheek. “Good night,” she said. “Don’t stay up too late, friend.”
“Xian Satellite Contol Center, this is Long March One, how do you read. Over.”
“We read you clear and strong, Long March. Welcome to the moon.”
“We are happy to have landed, Beijing, and grateful for guidance assistance on approach. You can see from the monitor that we’re on smooth ground, about four hundred meters from crater edge.”
“Copy that, Long March One. Telemetry shows you stable.”
“Countdown now underway for EVA, Xian.”
“Proceed as planned, Long March One. Extra Vehicular Activity commencing in eleven hours, repeat eleven hours.”
“We are reporting successful synch to local wireless cellphone network—showing four bars at Vodafone connection.”
“That is good news, Long March One. We will be checking downward signal propagation shortly.”
“Are there script changes for planned broadcast commencing 12 hours 14 minutes?”
“There are no changes, Long March One. Be advised both babies are safely here at Xian Satellite Control Center.”
“Xian, have our husbands been alerted to our safe arrival?”
“That’s affirmative, Long March One. We have them here in Xian. Do you need to speak with them.”
“Negative, Xian. We are on preparation checklist now. Will be listing tasks as completed.”
“Copy that, Long March One. Be advised that Long March Two remains in stable orbit, currently out of communications contact. Should be back on your side of the moon in 2-6 minutes, and ready to serve as backup relay.”
“Thank you, Xian. We are now opening Tool Bay 1, and beginning suit pressurization check.”
“Understood, Long March One. We have a message for you from Chairman Xi, Long March One. It says ‘Congratulations on your safe landing. Though the citizens of the People’s Republic do not yet know of your mission, be assured that their pride in your achievements will be enormous. This is the most important day in our nation since the original founding of the PRC, and your commitment to the nation will not be forgotten.”
“Copy that, Xian.”