The Supremes Blow Smoke
The original 13 states have been largely blanketed in smoke this holiday weekend—the ongoing Canadian fires, which we now learn (see below) may burn till the snow falls in October, are changing the very quality of summer sunlight to something grayed-out and menacing. But it’s nothing compared to the smokescreen coming from DC.
The big Supreme Court decisions of recent days—allowing commercial bigotry, ending affirmative action, and preventing the White House from expunging student debt—are venal and mean. But they are also something else: an effort to make sure that the more functional politics of an earlier era can’t interfere with the bought-and-paid-for nihilism of the present. I wrote about a lovely time machine a few days ago—the lithium-iron battery that lets you store the afternoon’s sun to provide light and heat for the night to come. But the gang of six justices now recasting our nation’s politics have invented a time machine of their own, one that lets you go back in history and erase goodness.
Thanks for reading the Crucial Years. It’s free, and even if you pay the modest voluntary subscription fee you don’t get anything extra, except I guess whatever satisfaction comes with keeping this thing going!
The theory that undergirded the student debt decision is the same one the Court used to gut the Clean Air Act last summer—something they’ve ginned up out of thin air called the Major Questions Doctrine. It holds that if the government wants to do something important, Congress has to spell out every detail: it’s not enough that Congress gave a mandate to protect clean air, it has to specify precisely what pollutants in what amounts. In the case of student debt, the Congress, reacting to 9/11, allowed the Secretary of Education to henceforth alter student debt payments in times of emergency, an authority the Biden White House seized on, quite sensibly, during the pandemic. The timing of those Congressional actions is important.
The Clean Air Act was adopted in 1971, back when we actually had a fairly effective Congress—among other things, it also passed the Clean Water Act (itself gutted earlier this term) and the Endangered Species Act, and set up the Environmental Protection Agency; these represented the powerful organizing of environmentalists, which shifted the zeitgeist so dramatically that bipartisan majorities fell in behind them; they’ve been weakened some since but never scrapped, because the public (unlike the billionaire class) essentially supports them. As for student loans, our politics had begun to break down by 2001, but at least an emergency like 9/11 could summon up some of the old spirit.
Now, after the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump have all but broken the back of our democracy, the Supreme Court justices have taken time out from their Alaskan fishing trips to go back and try to eradicate those better moments in our history. As Elana Kagan pointed out in her dissent on the student loans case, it’s nothing more than an exercise of raw power:
“From the first page to the last, today’s opinion departs from the demands of judicial restraint. At the behest of a party that has suffered no injury, the majority decides a contested public policy issue properly belonging to the politically accountable branches and the people they represent.”
“That is a major problem not just for governance, but for democracy too. Congress is of course a democratic institution; it responds, even if imperfectly, to the preferences of American voters. And agency officials, though not themselves elected, serve a President with the broadest of all political constituencies. But this Court? It is, by design, as detached as possible from the body politic. That is why the Court is supposed to stick to its business — to decide only cases and controversies, and to stay away from making this Nation’s policy about subjects like student-loan relief.”
“The court exercises authority it does not have. It violates the Constitution.”
The anti-gay bigotry and affirmative action cases did not depend on the Major Questions doctrine, but they were decided in the same spirit of erasing history. After many years of spirited organizing, for instance, Colorado’s legislature in 2008 added “sexual orientation” to the list of things businesses couldn’t discriminate against. Now the court has ruled, in essence, that they were wrong—that if you can claim your religion is sufficiently hateful, it gives you an out and you can go back to being a bigot.
There’s something uniquely painful about surrendering ground you thought you had gained. So here’s my Major Question this smoky Independence Day:
What exactly does the Supreme Court recommend we do about the most dangerous crisis our species has ever faced? And I don’t mean the grave danger of gay people needing a wedding website
Or here’s how Martin Luther King put his Major Question, in Montgomery in 1965 at the end of the eight-day march from Selma:
I know you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' Somebody's asking, 'How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?'
The Supreme Court’s answers are: we will do nothing about our problems, and it will take forever.
The judicial slaughter of our better angels is an affront to everyone who did all that work to pass these laws decades ago. I know many of those people through my work at Third Act, and it is of course painful to us. But we also know that we have the ability to organize again—that having won these battles once it may still be within our power to do so again. The irreplaceable Rebecca Solnit, writing yesterday in the Guardian, puts it well:
Memory is a superpower, because memory of how these situations changed is a memory of our victories and our power. Each of these victories happened both through the specifics of campaigns to change legislation but also through changing the public imagination. The supreme court can dismantle the legislation but they cannot touch the beliefs and values. We still believe in these rights.
I confess that there are moments when my faith slips; it should not be this hard. And I do not know if the spirit of cynicism and nihilism embraced by everyone from Donald Trump to RFK Jr. won’t triumph this time. But many of us will keep writing and working and organizing, and we will do it in the belief that most people are mostly good and that over time that goodness will tell—the belief that even the Federalist Society can’t indefinitely hold down the human spirit. Here’s a great essay from one of my colleagues about figuring out they were non-binary in their 60s, and here’s the other piece of reporting that’s kept me going this weekend: an account of the current Miss Texas at the end of her year-long reign.
The perch has normally been occupied by apolitical women, but in Bishop’s case, the pageant queen has used it to push back against the far-right policies supported by Texas’s White male leaders.
Her platform — diversity and inclusion — represents much of what Texas has been outlawing. In June alone, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed laws banning diversity offices and training at state universities, “sexually explicit” books at public schools, drag shows and gender-affirming care for youths.
During some high school visits, Bishop asked students to raise their hands and share communities they identified with. She said students often mentioned the LGBTQ community.
“They’re going to see a completely different Texas in the next decade compared to the one that we have now,” Bishop said.
Let us hope that she is right, and let us make it so.
In other energy and climate news:
+Kate Aronoff has the receipts to show that the fight against offshore wind in New Jersey is being handled by law firms with deep ties to national rightwing groups and funders
The sheer amount of right-wing and industry support being funneled into the fight against offshore wind can make it difficult to delineate between politically motivated attacks on clean energy infrastructure and those—including groups like the Sierra Club and Earthjustice—looking to ensure high-road labor and environmental standards for clean energy development. Following the money, though, is as good a place as any to start.
+Total investment in European solar startups has risen 398% over the past year.
Although wind produces double the amount of the EU’s electricity as solar, generating 15.9% compared with solar’s 7.6%, there are almost 6 times more startups focused on solar than wind energy in Europe, and it’s the consumer market that’s driving the expansion.
Rooftop installations account for 66% of the EU’s current solar capacity, with commercial roof-top panels spreading faster than utility-scale ground-mounted projects. And consumers keen to curb rising electricity prices are also looking to the sun, with Google searches about the cost of solar panels hitting an all-time high last summer with search interest up over 300% compared with the previous year.
Dr Sara Ghaemi, Avnet Abacus’s Technical Director, comments “Rooftop solar panels could potentially produce 25% of Europe’s annual electricity consumption. As well as the available rooftop surfaces, the facade of the buildings can also contribute to the generation of green energy. The fast deployment and decentralised integration of photovoltaic panels into the energy system are two main attributes that make them very attractive.”
“When looking for a replacement to fossil fuels, however, rooftop and facade panels will not be enough. This will require large scale photovoltaic farms, where you’re talking about megawatts of power generation. At such high power and high energy density, recent developments in silicon carbide and gallium nitride technologies are enabling power to be converted with greater efficiency than traditional silicon-based components.”
+You know how you can tell a public power plan for Maine makes sense? The incumbent utilities are spending a fortune to fight it
Residents in Maine are about to be bombarded with a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at saving the state’s two dominant electric utilities from being voted out of existence in November.
If Mainers vote yes, they will make history – endorsing a first-of-its-kind plan to create a state-level, public power company through a hostile takeover.
“This is one ship they don’t want to see launched,” said Kenneth Colburn, a former consultant with the global energy policy firm Regulatory Assistance Project, speaking about investor-backed utilities across the US. “Because it could turn into an armada.”
+Much attention has been focused on the record temperatures in Texas, but the nastiest heat may be further east in Lousiana and Alabama, where the humidity and the mercury are combining to produce ‘wet-bulb’ temperatures up in the threatening-to-human-life range. And nothing sounds as terrifying as the conditions in un-air-conditioned prisons across the region
In more than a dozen interviews this week, current and former inmates, as well as their relatives and friends, described an elemental effort at survival going on inside the prisons, with inmates relying on warm water, wet towels and fans that push hot air. Some flooded their cells with water from their combination sink-toilets, lying on the wet concrete for relief. Others, desperate for the guards’ attention, lit fires or took to screaming in unison for water or for help with an inmate who had passed out.
“If somebody goes down, we start beating on the lockers and doors yelling, ‘Man down!” said Luke King, 41, an inmate who, along with Mr. Martire, is in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. With the heat, he said, that has been happening “at least daily.”
+Bill Kitchen points out that the MVP pipeline and the Titan submarine disaster have something in common: reliance on structural elements that may be weaker than we thought.
The National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators (NAPCA) says that the coating shouldn’t be exposed to the sun for more than six months but the MVP pipe was coated 6 or 7 years ago and most of it has been exposed to the sun in pipeyards or along right of ways ever since. The January 2020 issue of Corrosion Management reported (starting on p. 16) that the coating on Keystone XL pipe was “no longer fit for purpose” after it had sat out in the sun for years just as MVP’s pipe has. Every piece of KXL pipe that was tested failed the flexibility test and had cracks in the coating. Cracked coating is obviously no longer corrosion-proof.
+That smoke in the air above the East? Robinson Meyer brings the bad news that it will likely last till the snow flies up north in October.
This is the worst Canadian wildfire year on record. More than 29,500 square miles of forest have burned, an area larger than the state of West Virginia. In 1989, when the previous wildfire record was set, it took 12 months for that much forest to burn. But this year has already surpassed the old record in barely more than six.
+Musician Will Fudeman makes an argument for replacing 4th of July fireworks with kite-flying—especially this dry, hot year. Just listen. Meanwhile, did you know that there’s a soccer team in Vermont that is making climate change the center of its identity? Grist and the Guardian have the story
“Everything revolves around our mission,” said Patrick Infurna, one of the six people who co-founded the Burlington-based Vermont Green in 2020. The team plays in the USL2 (the semi-professional fourth division of the US soccer pyramid) and is in their second full season, which runs from mid-May through mid-July. “We’re trying to implement big things and spark big things.”
The Green certainly aren’t the first sports team to address climate change. Most franchises now have some sort of sustainability program and the Seattle Kraken play hockey in Climate Pledge Arena. But the Green is the only squad in the United States with climate justice as its driving principle, putting it at the vanguard of a burgeoning movement to make sports a platform for climate action.
“You see examples of environmental sustainability in all the leagues in the US,” said Jonathan Casper, an associate professor of sports management at North Carolina State University who researches the intersection of sports and the natural environment. “But not to the extent that you see in Vermont … [It’s] a core value of the club.”
+Speaking of fireworks, the young people of Climate Defiance managed to make some noise during a Harvard Club of New York fundraiser for Senator Chuck Schumer. One of their points: he already took a chunk of cash from the company building the MVP
pipeline boondoggle across Appalachia.
+New study: every tenth of a degree rise in global temperature moves another 100 million people or so out of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of easily habitable temperatures and into someplace harsher
“Exposure outside the niche could result in increased morbidity, mortality, adaptation in place or displacement (migration elsewhere). High temperatures have been linked to increased mortality, decreased labour productivity, decreased cognitive performance, impaired learning, adverse pregnancy outcomes, decreased crop yield potential, increased conflict, hate speech, migration and infectious disease spread,” the authors wrote.
The study’s lead author, Timothy Lenton of the University of Exeter, noted that these impacts could result in significant climate-forced migration. “If the people stayed where they are projected to be it would pose serious challenges for agriculture (and many other activities),” Lenton said via email. “I’d be surprised if a lot of the people didn’t also opt to migrate to cooler climates.” Co-author Chi Xu from Nanjing University added, “Many (or a majority of) interconnected components of human societies would be seriously challenged as inferred from existing studies. Mass migration and social instabilities in general, which potentially cascade to amplify existential risk of human civilizations, is the major concern.
+Writing for Canary Media, the reliable Michael Grunwald reports that those “vertical farming” schemes that got so much attention and investment are mostly failing badly, because you have to pay a lot for the electricity to do the work that sunlight does for free
It’s not yet clear whether vertical farming is an over-hyped, premature, expensive business model that can still help change the world someday, or whether it’s just a dumb and impractical idea. Its biggest immediate problem is that it’s a ludicrous energy hog, because even though LEDs are way cheaper than they used to be, they’re way more expensive than sunlight. I did some back-of-the-envelope math with one disillusioned investor, and we calculated that indoor farms like the one he had supported would require every megawatt of America’s current renewable energy production to grow just 5 percent of America’s tomato crop.
+Since we’ve been keeping a weather eye on the threats posed by artificial intelligence, here’s a fascinating interview in the new Asterisk magazine with Beth Barnes, who tries to see if the new iterations of Chat GPT and their kin are figuring out how to elude human control. I must say, it’s not entirely cheerful
You could imagine that in the future, we’ve got a model that’s capable enough that we think it could destroy a civilization if it wanted to. But in all the ways we’ve been able to prompt it so far, it says that it loves humanity and would never do nasty things. So how can we be confident that this is a model that loves humanity and will never do nasty things? There’s a few reasons why we might doubt it.
First, even if it’s not deliberately plotting anything, it might just be unreliable. We can’t test very many prompts compared to the number of things that people will try once the model is deployed, so it’s hard to get a guarantee that there won’t be some edge case where it decides to go and cause enormous harm. Secondly, you can imagine that the model is aware that it's being tested and is deliberately saying things that will cause it to get rewarded or get deployed. Even if the model doesn’t have a very good understanding of when it’s in training or when it’s deployed and can do things in the real world, it can be conservative and do things it thinks will get rewarded, until it gets to a point where it’s confident that it’s not in training and it’s not going to get punished.
+The very veteran climate blogger Joe Romm offers a fairly definitive take on the current state of carbon offsets
Carbon offsets are “reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from an activity in one place to compensate for emissions elsewhere,” as the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) put it. In a typical transaction, a developed country or company—instead of reducing its own heat-trapping CO2 emissions—pays a developing country to reduce its emissions by an equivalent amount instead. If the
buyer purchases enough offsets to cover all its emissions, then it calls itself “carbon neutral” or “net zero.” Typical projects are deploying clean energy, planting new trees, and paying people not to cut down trees. But research on offsets shows “the large majority are not real or are over-credited or both,” said Dr. Barbara Haya, Director of The Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, in 2023.
These problems pervade every major offset program. Consider the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)—the world’s biggest program, launched in 2006. Over 50% of CDM offsets came from China, nearly 70% from China and India. Studies have found the vast majority of those credits
were not genuine—either the projects would have happened anyway (without the offset money) or they were credited for far more reductions than actually occurred or both… Not only was there little actual clean development, but those offsets were
sold to developed countries, letting them generate as much as 6 billion tons of CO2 more than they would have otherwise. Too often, offsets cause pollution and discourage genuine CO 2 reductions.
+Who doesn’t like pictures of big hail? Here’s some that fell in Mississippi last week, 5 inches in diameter
But if you’re an insurance company, this is scary stuff. Yale’s Eye of the Storm blog reports we could pass 2020’s national record for hail-related damage this year—that would be $44 billion. Among other things, these giant stones can and do damage solar panels, but as Yale pointed out, “the same line of severe storms produced a tornado earlier in the day over northeast Wyoming that struck the North Antelope Rochelle Mine – the world’s largest coal mine – injuring six people and hindering production for an indefinite period.”
+New numbers show China on course to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets five years ahead of schedule. The Guardian reports that the data
says that as of the first quarter of the year, China’s utility-scale solar capacity has reached 228GW, more than that of the rest of the world combined. The installations are concentrated in the country’s north and north-west provinces, such as Shanxi, Xinjiang and Hebei.
In addition, the group identified solar farms under construction that could add another 379GW in prospective capacity, triple that of the US and nearly double that of Europe.
China has also made huge strides in wind capacity: its combined onshore and offshore capacity now surpasses 310GW, double its 2017 level and roughly equivalent to the next top seven countries combined. With new projects in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu and along coastal areas, China is on course to add another 371GW before 2025, increasing the global wind fleet by nearly half.
+The US is reporting its first cases of locally acquired malaria in 20 years, in both South Florida and Texas.
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