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Ignore that bomb, someone lit a fire-cracker!
On exploding EVs, bird-killing windmills, and why it's easy to demonize the new
Two weeks ago today, a fire broke out in the parking garage at Luton airport in the UK. Before it was out, 1,500 cars had been destroyed, and the the structure had collapsed from the heat. And while it was still burning, people were spreading rumors on social media that it had been caused by an electric vehicle. Those rumors kept spreading, aided by the anti-environmental amplifiers across social media; before long, for instance, a widely-read Australian climate denial website was exulting that “EV’s Luton Fire Just Killed the EV Market.” As the website’s author admits, there’s no actual evidence that the fire was caused by an EV save for a series of Youtube videos by a “car nerd,” but the rumors were “a big deal to a lot of people, and he argues, a turning point in the quest to get everyone driving an electric vehicle.” In fact, the writer says, “it doesn’t matter — everyone thought it was an EV anyway, and he argues — it will destroy electric car sales either way.”
In fact, the fire was caused by a diesel car—the source for that is not someone on twitter who also wrote a book about “Gender Madness: One Man’s Devastating Struggle with Woke Ideology,” nor a dude with a Youtube channel who thinks the Clinton Foundation is trying to outlaw automobiles. The source for that fact is the, um, Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, which, um, responded to the fire. Also, there’s literal footage (this being the cellphone era) of the car burning—it was a 2014 Range Rover. When social media users continued to insist it must at least have been a hybrid, those sticklers at the, um, Daily Mail were forced to point out Range Rover hadn’t been making hybrids back then, but that they had recalled a number of cars because they, um, caught on fire.
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More importantly, a few seconds worth of googling would have uncovered the fact that according to insurers, and to the Scandinavian experts who have been studying the countries with the highest concentrations of electric vehicles, EVs are 20 to 80 times less likely to catch on fire than their fossil fuel counterparts. Which if you think about it isn’t too surprising given that fossil fuel is quite flammable. I mean, when bad guys on tv want to cause a fire they literally slosh gasoline around and toss a match.
And, of course, what we really have to worry about are the giant fires now consuming ever larger portions of our planet, which are caused in large part by…all those gas and diesel cars pouring carbon into the air. It’s not that electric vehicles can’t catch on fire—they can, and we should of course be prepared to deal with it. But relative to the status quo it’s a much smaller problem in every way. (Carbon Brief has a superb takedown of this and 20 other myths about EVs).
And relative to the status quo is how we should judge things, not relative to some standard of perfect safety. So, yes, windmills can kill birds. But a very small number compared to other things (cats, tall buildings, wires); in fact, new data from MIT shows that fossil fuel kills 27 times more birds per unit of energy produced than wind turbines. And the gravest danger to birds by far is the rapid heating of the planet (read Adam Welz’ superb new book The End of Eden), which windmills will help forestall. So it makes no sense to oppose windmills on these grounds—you might suggest a few migration corridors where we should avoid siting them, but only in the context of building more somewhere else. Similarly, whales and offshore turbines: the data indicates no great threat, and other data makes abundantly clear that the use of fossil fuels, which windmills displace, is heating and acidifying the ocean in which whales must live. If nothing else, 40 percent of the world’s ship traffic is just carrying coal and oil and gas back and forth; think of the cetacean paradise if we eliminated that.
Psychologists have done their best to explain why we’re more scared of possible dangers from new things than obvious dangers from old ones (“this reaction may have to do with our amygdala, which research suggests plays a role in detecting novelty as well as processing fear”), and marketers have done their best to exploit it. But the rest of us have to do our best to fight it in ourselves and others.
A good and pertinent example: there’s been a lot of fear and angst about the new mining for metals like lithium and cobalt required for the clean energy transition. In one sense this is useful: as we move into this new endeavor, we should take all the steps we can to make it clean and humane. But mining always comes with some damage, and so will this. The question is, relative to what? It takes orders of magnitude less mining (by one estimate 535 times less) to power the world with renewables than it does with fossil fuel. And breathing the smoke from fossil fuel combustion kills nine million people a year, one death in five—that’s far more than will ever be affected by mining. And it helps short-circuit the rapid warming of earth, which is the deepest threat to the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.
Social media in particular transmits shocking novelty far more effectively than common sense; if you see a post about a government document showing how many lives were saved by mass vaccination campaigns, it’s less interesting than somebody railing that their favorite athlete was killed by his covid shot. (Which, on examination, never turns out to be true anyway). And in the case of climate change, we have a multi-trillion dollar industry whose business model utterly depends on us not making the transition to a cleaner, cheaper, simpler system of powering our world.
So expect the disinformation to continue; our job is to do what we can to step back, look at the larger picture, and help people see the forest for the burning trees.
In other energy and climate news:
+An obscure corner of international law that allows corporations to sue governments is becoming a major obstacle to climate action, Inside Climate News reports:
Soon after Italy approved a ban on offshore oil drilling, in 2015, the country received some alarming news: A British oil company that had been planning to drill was suing the government, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.
The company, called Rockhopper, brought its claim not in Italian courts but through a system of international arbitration that allows foreign investors to sue governments. Last year, the company won the case along with an order that the Italian government pay Rockhopper about $200 million.
On Thursday, a United Nations expert warned that cases like these could be the beginning of a wave of litigation that threatens to undermine climate action as nations look to phase out fossil fuel development.
David Boyd, the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told a committee of the U.N. General Assembly that governments are being targeted with dozens of legal claims seeking hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, with many of those suits brought by oil and mining companies.
+New German research data makes clear that cycling doesn’t just clear the air, it improves the society; if you bike, you start finding yourself more oriented to “the common good”:
Cycling rather than driving was positively associated with orientation towards the common good in all models. Cycling was the only variable that was a significant positive predictor for all four facets of orientation towards the common good after controlling for possibly confounding variables (homeownership, personal income, education, sex). This research demonstrated that mobility behavior is associated with the orientation towards the common good. These findings are significant for policy and planning because the benefits of cycling over driving are more profound and sustainable than previously thought.
+Midwest activists celebrated a big win in the fight against carbon dioxide pipelines across their land. Jane Kleeb, a dear colleague from the Keystone battle, said
“This company treated farmers and ranchers with disdain and aggression. Starting a negotiating process out telling landowners the corporation is going to take their land by eminent domain is a losing strategy. And today, Navigator found out what happens when you go against organized landowners and unlikely alliances.”
+Veteran writer Laurie Hays points out in an impassioned editorial that it’s time to stick up for Bidenomics, in particular its emphasis on clean energy buildout.
Bidenomics is based on growing out the middle and working class and orchestrating the shift to a green economy. There are already signs that it’s providing growth and transformation. The economy is galloping along at a rate that the Fed seems unable to slow down. Unemployment scraped 3.4% this year for the first time since 1969, and is staying comfortably under 4%. The Institute for Supply Management’s index measuring U.S. factory activity rose three points since June---the biggest three-month gain since March 2021. The Biden administration says it has created 13.9 million new jobs, including 815,000 in manufacturing. Spending on construction for new factories is at an all-time high.
+My busy colleagues at Third Act Maine, led by Bill Rixon, have been keeping up a presence outside L.L.Bean in Freeport, to remind that excellent retailer that their relationship with Citibank drives their carbon emissions through the roof. The CEO Stephen Smith stopped by to talk with the protesters last week.
Rixon said Smith explained how L.L. Bean had accomplished a long list of environmental initiatives and listened to Rixon’s point of view.
“I hope that Stephen Smith took away from our conversation the fact that this is a great marketing opportunity for L.L. Bean,” Rixon said. “They have the opportunity to burnish and bolster their reputation as good stewards of the environment by leading others to a better climate future.”
Dr. Tom Mikulka, a co-facilitator of Third Act Maine, an organization that brings together Americans older than 60 to campaign against climate change, wrote to Smith on June 13. “I am an enthusiastic customer of L.L. Bean and a lover of outdoors. I want to begin by praising L.L. Bean for its efforts to eliminate plastic from packaging and PFAS from its products.”
Mikulka went on to detail the “abysmal” standing of Citibank on climate rankings worldwide. “Every dollar that Citi makes from credit card holders is a potential dollar funding more fossil fuel development,” he wrote.
+The Washington Post, in its Pulitzer-worthy series on The Human Limit, reports on the rapid, climate-fueled spread of malaria to new latitudes and elevations:
Unica Cardoso leaned against the walls of the overcrowded health center, her body aching and her fever spiking.
It was Mozambique’s winter season, when cooler and drier weather have historically meant less malaria transmission. But there’d been so many suspected cases that day that the health center had run out of quick tests. Cardoso, 35, had just tested positive and feared her 2-year-old daughter at home was sick with the same.
“I am not surprised anymore,” she said of falling sick during the winter. “But it is not normal.”
The threat posed by malaria stands to soar as the planet warms because of longer transmission seasons, more frequent and severe extreme weather events, and the migration of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to new latitudes and altitudes, according to a Washington Post analysis of climate modeling and reporting from the southern African country of Mozambique.
While infectious-disease experts have for years documented that rising temperatures expand the range of deadly pathogens, the ominous trend here underscores the extent to which nearly two decades of global progress against malaria is being eroded in part because of climate change. The world has seen global case counts ticking up over the past six years, according to the World Health Organization, with case rates increasing by 10 percent during that period in Mozambique, which researchers rank among the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
“Despite all the interventions, we are not seeing results,” said Baltazar Candrinho, who leads Mozambique’s national malaria control program. “The temperatures are going up, the rainfall is strange … and when a cyclone comes, people lose everything — and we lose the tools to fight malaria. It is a big challenge.”
+Enormous kudos to Grist and writer Lois Parshley for a four-part series on the collapsing insurance industry, which is running up against climate risks that challenge everything about its model.
As climate change intensifies extreme weather and claims pile up, this system has been thrown into disarray. Insured losses from natural disasters in the U.S. now routinely approach $100 billion a year, compared to $4.6 billion in 2000. As a result, the average homeowner has seen their premiums spike 21 percent since 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the states most likely to have disasters — like Texas and Florida — have some of the most expensive insurance rates. That means ever more people are forgoing coverage, leaving them vulnerable and driving prices even higher as the number of people paying premiums and sharing risk shrinks.
This vicious cycle also increases reinsurers’ rates. Reinsurers globally raised prices for property insurers by 37 percent in 2023, contributing to insurance companies pulling back from risky states like California and Florida. “As events are getting bigger and more costly, that has raised the prices of reinsurance in those areas,” said Carolyn Kousky, the associate vice president for economics and policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, who studies insurance. “It’s called the hardening of the market.”
In a worse-case scenario, this all leads to a massive stranded asset problem: Premiums get so high that property values plummet, families’ investments dissipate, and banks are stuck holding what’s left.
More simply, the global process for handling life’s risks is breaking down, leaving those who can least afford it unprotected.
+Just in case you were wondering, Jeff Masters and Bob Henson report that “it’s a busy week in the tropics, with landfalling tropical cyclones occurring or expected to occur in Bangladesh, Yemen, Vanuatu, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
+Heidi Blake, in a definitive piece in the New Yorker, lays waste to the carbon offset scam. You’ve got to read the whole thing, but:
In the years after the Kyoto targets came into effect, thousands of projects were registered under the U.N.’s Clean Development Mechanism, and hundreds of millions of credits were issued, each worth one metric ton of carbon. Yet, as the market grew, so did questions about its integrity. Scholars worried that developers would inflate their projects’ climate impact. Many environmentalists dismissed offsetting as a system of empty indulgences. One online spoof invited unfaithful spouses to pay someone else to remain faithful: “By paying Cheat Neutral, you’re funding monogamy-boosting offset projects.”
At parties in Zurich, South Pole’s founders were grilled about the ethics of the carbon trade. “We were constantly challenged by friends,” Bürgi told me. But Heuberger brushed aside such concerns. If humanity was to have any chance of saving itself, he was convinced, “there must be a positive narrative to climate action.” When skeptics disagreed, he told me, his reaction was “Shut up. Keep it to yourself. Because we are on a mission here.”
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