Sheet cake as ammunition
In a polarized society, sometimes you can fight a different way
We live in a highly polarized society—the Washington Post reported this morning that “science is revealing why” we’ve become so sharply divided in our political life. They have one expert after another explaining that evolution set us up for this ugliness:
The tendency to form tightly knit groups has roots in evolution, according to experts in political psychology. Humans evolved in a challenging world of limited resources in which survival required cooperation — and identifying the rivals, the competitors for those resources.
“The evolution of cooperation required out-group hatred. Which is really sad,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and author of “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.”
I’m not a thousand percent convinced of this explanation—I grew up in a time of somewhat gentler political competition, and I live in a place (Vermont) where that old era still holds: we have a Republican governor whom I disagree with on some things but respect. It seems unlikely we’ve devolved in the course of a single generation, and so I doubt Darwin alone can explain our current travails. But there is no gainsaying the story’s basic point: “this country, though politically fractious since its founding, is more polarized than ever, the rhetoric more inflammatory, the rage more likely to curdle into hate. It’s ugly out there.”
The Crucial Years fights hard but fair for things that matter. It goes out free to everyone because it needs to, and because a few selfless people pay the modest and voluntary subscription fee to underwrite it, getting nothing of value in return save my thanks.
So, a question is: can we sometimes conduct politics—even politics about life and death matters like climate change—in a way that doesn’t do further damage to our society? And are there cases where it might be more effective to do it that way?
I’m thinking about this right now because on Thursday my colleagues at Third Act, with other activists, launched a campaign designed to get Costco to pressure its bank—Citi—to stop funding fossil fuel expansion. It’s an interesting fight for several reasons:
Costco is the third largest retailer on our overheating planet, trailing just Walmart and Amazon.
Thirty seven percent of Americans shop at Costco.
And Citibank is the second largest funder of the fossil fuel industry.
So, a big deal, and a point that needs making.
But it’s also interesting because Costco is a basically good company. It treats its employees fairly by most accounts, paying wages well above the average, and providing decent benefits. I am a big advocate of local food, but so far my valley is not producing its own razor blades, and the one Costco in our state has, exclusively, my very favorite cheese (Mad River Reserve, from the Cabot Cooperative, which is a blend of cheddar and parmesan, and just writing about it means that I’m stopping to go slice off a little hunk). (Actually, it turned out to be a large-ish hunk).
Costco’s problem is not that it is bad—it’s that it’s fallen in with a bad crowd, that bad crowd being the amoral money-center banks that have ignored the world’s climate scientists and continued to pump money into pipelines and LNG export terminals and all the other things that damage both communities and planets. Because of their size, Costco pressuring Citi would have enormous benefits; it might actually convince the bank to shift, because losing Costco’s business would be as painful as losing Big Oil’s. And it’s not an impossible ask: Costco’s main competitor, the much-less-socially-conscious Sam’s Club, offers their credit card through a supplier called Synchrony which is…not the second-biggest funder of fossil fuels on planet earth.
Furthermore, Costco’s customers, surely, mostly fall into that huge demographic of normal suburbanites who polls show care about climate change. So they’re open to the notion that Costco should change—that’s why 40,000 of them have already signed a petition asking for it to happen. But they also like the store—by a wide margin it’s the most loved of the big box stores, and only Trader Joe’s approaches it for general affection. It therefore wouldn’t work to mount a frontal attack, insisting that it’s an evil company. Because it isn’t.
So, the sheet cake. And the party hats. We launched this fight on the month that Costco’s new CEO, Ron Vachris (who started at the store as a forklift driver, which should tell you something right there) took over. We billed it as a celebration, and said we were counting on his openness to new ideas.
And Friday, at the annual shareholder’s meeting, Vachris said: "Citi is indeed a key partner for Costco Wholesale, and we are aware of those petitions that were signed. We are going to continue moving forward with our climate action plan, and have been in discussions with Citi about their carbon reduction plans in the future. We're going to focus on our efforts, and we'll stay close to Citi and their efforts as well."
That’s not a win, but it’s a start—something we can hold them to. And we understand it’s not easy—if Costco did the right thing, no doubt they’d face pressure from the oil-saturated far right, who would gin up something about them going “woke.” I don’t think it would damage them, but businesses are always wary. So, the process is begun, and I have no doubt it will continue. The magazine Progressive Grocer (and it was worth starting this campaign just to find out there was a magazine called Progressive Grocer) reported on the launch, noting new data that showed Costco’s money in Citibank produced far more carbon emissions than its warehouses or its trucks. Over time—hopefully not too much time—that will weigh on any serious executive.
There are other shades of this, places where activists need to choose not just what to fight but how to fight. At the moment, for instance, we’re pressing the Biden administration to stop granting export licenses for new LNG facilities. It’s crucial—the biggest fossil fuel expansion project on the planet. And we’re doing civil disobedience next month outside the Department of Energy—because we have to stop this. But it’s going to be very civil civil disobedience, because the DOE is only partly an adversary—half the people in the building we’ll be picketing are busy doing some of the most cutting-edge work in the world, figuring out how to get as much renewable energy as possible to the communities that need it the most.
And, of course, we don’t want to damage Joe Biden, who is going to have to beat Donald Trump in November, or else we will lose all these fights immediateluy and comprehensively.
Trump, of course, is the wild card here—and I’d argue that he, more than “evolution,” has changed the flavor of our political life. There is no way to take him on without absolute clarity: he is an adjudged rapist who put his own interest above the country’s in a way none of his predecessors ever imagined when he egged on the January 6 rioters; he is eager to use the saddest strains of the American past and present—racism above all—to his own advantage; I would not leave my child in his company for five minutes while I went to the corner store to buy some milk.
I find it hard not to extend my disgust with him to his supporters (and with know-better lickspittles like Elise Stefanik I routinely fail), but on a wider scale that’s almost certainly a bad strategic move. (I’ve heard plenty of people defend Hilary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ remark as correct, but none as politically savvy). Still, there’s no way to take on Trump without being…divisive. It is a division, and one we must come out on the right side of, or lose our country and our world.
But we don’t want to lose our society in the process, if that’s still possible. We need to cling to the idea that we can rebuild a working country—a job that I think Joe Biden has in certain important ways begun.
Or at least I need to cling to this belief, which may in some ways explains my thinking about Costco. You’ve probably noted that its house brand products are called Kirkland, for the Washington town where it had its first headquarters. As it happens, my beloved grandfather was the town doctor in Kirkland for fifty years, when it was a small ship-building town, and on occasion he served as mayor; my beloved father grew up there, playing baseball and hiking the Cascades. I think of them every time I unscrew the cap on my bottle of olive oil, and I’d love to be able to do it without thinking of Citibank as well.
In other energy and climate news:
+Heatmap is really emerging as a reliable and steady source of climate news. Recently they managed to “factcheck” what one Donald John Trump has been saying about climate change on the campaign trail. It makes for…insane reading
Trump: “They want to have electric trucks, so a truck — a big, beautiful truck like Peterbilt or one of them, with the big ones, 18 wheelers, they can go about 2,000 miles, they say, 2,000 on a big tank of diesel. An electric truck, comparable — which it can’t be comparable because you need so much room for the battery. Most of the area that you’re going to carry your goods, going to be battery. But assuming we take away that problem, which is not easy to take away, you’d have to stop approximately seven times to go 2,000 miles, right? You go about 300 miles, and they don’t want to change that.” [Dec. 20, 2023]
Fact check: There’s a lot to unpack here, but the gist is that most of these are the kind of early-stage problems you would find with any emerging technology. While the technology powering heavy-duty electric trucks is promising, there is still a long way to go when it comes to range and capacity.
Still, even a semi that goes only around 375 miles — longer than Trump’s estimate — on a single charge would ultimately be cheaper than a diesel truck, one 2021 study found. Because of the lower cost of ownership, electric semis have a net savings of $200,000 over a 15-year lifespan.
And since we’re on the subject of electric trucks, a new survey by the WaPo’s Shannon Osaka found that drivers really really like them
Marty Boots, a 66-year-old driver for Schneider in South El Monte, Calif., appreciates the lightness and the smoothness of his Freightliner eCascadia semi-truck. “Diesel was like a college wrestler,” he said. “And the electric is like a ballet dancer.”
Boots, who also trains other drivers on how to optimize the battery in the electric truck, said some drivers were hesitant when first trying out the technology. But once they try it, he said, most are sold. “You get back into diesel and it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with this thing?’” he said. “Why is it making so much noise? Why is it so hard to steer?”
“Everyone who has had an EV has no aspirations to go back to diesel at this point,” said Khari Burton, who drives an electric Volvo VNR in the Los Angeles area for transport company IMC. “We talk about it and it’s all positivity. I really enjoy the smoothness … and just the quietness as well.”
+Business Insider has a wonderful account of the work that the indefatigable veteran leader Elizabeth Yeampierre has been doing in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Having beaten back a plan for upscale redevelopment of the neighborhood, Yeampierre’s group Uprose has been focused on a green buildout of Sunset Park, encompassing among other things local energy and local food:
While there are no cookie-cutter solutions to addressing the climate crisis in a socially just way, the Grid Plan 2.0 can serve as inspiration for other maritime neighborhoods from Boston to Houston, Yeampierre said.
"We need to share what's working, what isn't working, the mistakes that we've made," she said. Because when it comes to finding solutions for climate change, "We just don't have any time anymore."
+Meat-eating is one of the discussion topics that does not seem to always bring out the best in people. Farmerama Radio—a podcast—is hosting particularly interesting take on the question of “less and better”—episode 1 here
+I missed this, and perhaps you did too: the US youth poet laureate Salome Agbaroji performing her poem Oasis at the UN a few months ago. It’s a gorgeous call to hopeful action
+Tom Sanzillo, the endlessly insightful head of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reminds us that rational investors really don’t want to be holding oil stocks
The price of oil almost tells us the full story of the industry. In 2021, Brent crude averaged $70.89 perbarrel. It rose to $100.94 in 2022 before falling back to $82.40 last year.10 From 2016 through 2020,the average oil price was $62.69,11 and the industry lagged the market in four of the five years. TheUkraine bump and subsequent economic events have kept oil prices high relative to the 2016-20 period. Even with prices in the $80 range, however, the industry bounced around at the bottom of the broader stock market, which increased by 24%.
It appears that the oil and gas sector needs oil prices north of $100 per barrel to achieve the kind of financial performance for which it had previously been known.
+The Financial Times reports on the rise of social media disinformation about climate solutions, part of the endless efforts by the fossil fuel industry to protect its business.
A new wave of denial about climate change is on the rise even as there is greater acknowledgment of human-caused global warming, a study of more than 12,000 videos by a disinformation campaign group warns. The “new denial” seeks to undermine confidence in green energy solutions, as well as climate science and scientists, the research led by a group of academics and the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows. These forms of denial made up 70 per cent of falsehoods related to climate change in videos published on sites such as YouTube and X over a six-year period, said the report, which was published on Tuesday.
This kind of disinformation campaign in the last week has centered on insisting that cold weather was wreaking havoc with electric cars. So it’s useful to have a bounty of data from Norway (in percentage terms the earth’s leading EV nation) that demonstrates “electric vehicles fail at a lower rate than gas cars in extreme cold.” The researcher—using numbers from the Norse equivalent of AAA—found “that 13 percent of the cases with starting difficulties are electric cars, while the remaining 87 percent are fossil cars. Since 23 percent of the cars in Norway are electric cars, this means that electric cars are almost twice as good as fossil cars in the cold.”
+The Biden administration unveiled an expansive of public lands in the West that are potential sites for solar arrays, identifying :22 million acres in 11 western states best suited for development.” As Reuters explained, “the announcement is part of the Interior Department's push to site more renewable energy facilities on federal lands, a cornerstone of President Joe Biden's goal to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid by 2035 and combat climate change.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is getting ready to install lots of solar panels on the roof of the world’s second-largest office building.
Brendan Owens, assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment, said the projects will improve energy resilience and reliability at the Pentagon and other military sites in the U.S. and Germany. He called energy use “central to everything we do.’'
Solar panels will provide “an uninterrupted power source’’ at the Pentagon in case of a cyberattack or other outage to the bulk grid, as well as reduce strain on the building’s power load, Owens said in an interview.
Because of the Pentagon’s “relatively congested air space” outside Washington, solar panels were the best option for clean energy, he said. The building is a nationally registered historic landmark, so officials will work with local officials to ensure the panels meet all requirements.
+David Wallace-Wells is always worth reading, and especially this week when his column in the Times talks about just how important it was that small and vulnerable nations managed to insert the 1.5 degree temperature target into the text of the Paris accords
Every time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change took stock of the state of decarbonization or the world’s scientists and energy modelers sketched the implications of a new wave of carbon pledges or the U.N. published its Emissions Gap Report or the Climate Action Tracker updated its CAT thermometer, one base line of comparison was that 1.5-degree goal. The result was not just a regular reminder that decarbonization was proceeding at a frustratingly slow pace but also that this was the standard the climate community had set for itself and against which it had implicitly asked the world to be judged. Every time energy ministers or presidents reckoned with the gap between energy trajectories and climate promises, they found themselves in a bit of a bind, and it was the 1.5-degree goal that made it impossible to fudge the gap.
+It’s not too much to say that Jeff Masters is the most readable and reliable scorekeeper of the planet’s climate chaos. Here’s his summary report on 2023, which (as I believe I may have pointed out before) was the hottest year in human history
Global ocean temperatures and land temperatures in 2023 were both the warmest on record, said NOAA. According to Berkeley Earth, 2023 was the first year the global average land temperature was more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and it was also the first year that global average ocean surface temperatures were more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Global satellite-measured temperatures in 2023 for the lowest eight kilometers of the atmosphere were the warmest in the 45-year satellite record by a large margin, according to the University of Alabama Huntsville. The previous record was set in 2016. According to Berkeley Earth, 17% of the Earth’s surface experienced a locally record-high annual average temperature in 2023. Local record annual averages impacted an estimated 2.3 billion people — 29% of the global population — with 77 countries setting new national records for their annual average, including China, Japan, Bangladesh, Germany, Ukraine, Mexico, and Brazil.
+Greenland is melting faster than we thought
In the new study, researchers in the United States compiled nearly 240,000 satellite images of glacier terminus positions—where glaciers meet the ocean—from 1985 to 2022. "Nearly every glacier in Greenland has thinned or retreated over the past few decades," lead author Chad Greene, a glaciologist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told AFP.
"There really aren't any exceptions, and this is happening everywhere, all at once."
They found that over 1000 gigatons (1 gigaton is equivalent to 1 billion tons), or 20 percent, of ice around the edges of Greenland had been lost over the past four decades and not been accounted for. "The Greenland ice sheet has lost appreciably more ice in recent decades than previously thought," researchers said
+Okay, this is sweet—a “climate conversations” deck of cards, with each one a prompt to get people chatting. Download them for free!
+And finally, here’s one for the annals of creative protest—and, given the conversation above, a venue where being annoying and disruptive makes absolute sense. We’re not talking Costco here!
Over 40 Southwest Louisiana fishermen and shrimpers, joined by environmental justice advocates and Jane Fonda, disrupted the Americas Energy Summit on Friday, forcing the conference to end at 11am according to a conference goer, two hours before its scheduled end time. After a march from Jackson Square to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the fishermen, who had transported their fishing boats from Cameron Parish, parked their boats in front of the convention center and loudly revved their engines.
“We want our oystering back. We want our shrimp back. We want our dredges back. We want LNG to leave us alone,” said Solomon Williams Jr., a fisherman from Cameron who traveled to New Orleans for the disruption, “With all the oil and all the stuff they’re dumping in the water, it’s just killing every oyster we can get. Makes it so we can’t sell our shrimp.”
The fishermen had originally parked six boats in front of the convention center. However, local police threatened to issue tickets and tow away their boats. After many fishermen felt intimidated and left, the police then blocked off the street in front of the convention center. Fishermen were able to park two of their boats in front of the convention center and continue with the disruption.
“We’re standing in the fire down there. And these people over here, the decisions that they make, for which our fishermen are paying the price. That’s bullshit,” said Travis Dardar, founder of Fishermen Involved in Sustaining our Heritage (FISH), who organized the fishermen to come to New Orleans and disrupt the summit, “The police got us blocked here, they got us blocked there. But know that the fishermen are here and we’re still going to try and give them hell.”
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