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The Never-Ending COP
Friday thoughts as negotiations drag on in Glasgow--plus, more novel
The talks at Kyoto in 1997 only ended when workers literally started setting up the stalls for a children’s furniture convention in the negotiating hall; I don’t know what’s next for the Scottish Events Center in Glasgow, but it’s clear that the climate summit that was supposed to end about six hours ago is going to drag over for a day or two.
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And drag is the right word. There’s nothing very hopeful, as of this writing, about the text emerging in the final days. At the moment it expresses “deep regret” that the rich countries have not made good on their financial promises to the poor ones; it’s gone from talking about phasing out coal to phasing out “unabated coal,” code for continuing to build vast and wasteful carbon capture schemes; and from talking about ending fossil fuel subsidies to ending “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, which is one of those words that will doubtless hide a multitude of sins. And on the deepest question—how much and how fast we’re planning to cut the emissions heating the planet—there’s been no real advance. The computer modelers estimate that the new promises have knocked about a tenth of a degree off the ultimate warming trajectory, leaving us headed for about 2.5 degrees Celsius, which is way too much.
This kind of soggy outcome was pretty much guaranteed beforehand: the Chinese signaled they weren’t going to make promises beyond their Paris pledges, and in the US prime minister Manchin blocked the portions of the Build Back Better bill that would have given Biden a real bargaining chip, and then delayed the entire legislation so that the American delegation had no hand to play at all.
It’s not entirely clear how this will change going forward. Activists did all they could in Glasgow, but their leverage in the U.S. is limited—no one really thinks that after the BBB bill passes or doesn’t that there will be new federal legislation any time soon. And it is nonexistent in China, in Russia, in Brazil, in Turkey, in India. The new text calls on countries to update their targets every year—but China has already signaled that that sounds like too much work, and by the next COP Congress could easily be back in Republican hands—to wit, new polling today shows that 95% of Democrats accept scientific reality on climate change, but only 29 percent of GOP voters even understand the earth has begun to warm.
There is forward momentum—the leadup to Glasgow forced financial institutions to at least begin aggressive greenwashing. I imagine that much activism will henceforth focus on banks, both because they are crucial targets and because they are located in places (New York, London) where activists still have sway. Electoral votes tilt red, but money tilts blue. (If you’ve paid for a subscription to this small newsletter, my share of the subscription revenue has gone to ThirdAct, and banks are certainly where we’re aiming. )
Nothing changes the basic equation: progress is a fight between environmentalists, scientists, and human rights activists on the one side, and fossil fuel interests on the other. That game is slowly being won by the good guys, but slowly doesn’t help much; we need to speed up the win.
The blizzard of reports, studies and press releases that always accompanies a COP means that important developments can get buried. A few things worth noting this week:
+Backing the idea that pressure on fossil fuel finances really works, a new Bloomberg analysis showed that, because divestment and ESG pressures have taken so much capital off the table, oil drillers are paying four to six times as much for their money as renewable entrepreneurs. Capital costs like these make a big deal over time. “That's an extraordinary divergence, which is leading to an unprecedented shift in capital allocation,” a Goldman Sachs analyst explained. And this is the direct result of millions of undergraduates and people in church pews taking action. Meanwhile, Harvard divestment campaigners Connor Chung and Bevis Longstreth point out in a trenchant essay that those institutions that keep investing in fossil fuel now need fear legal action as well.
+Sane people are beginning to convert their home heating and cooking from gas to electric: it’s often cheaper, more effective, prevents catastrophic climate change, and keeps you from having what is in effect an open fire in your kitchen, the smoke from which leads to sky-high asthma rates. An Oklahoma utility has come up with a novel way to prevent you from doing this sensible thing: charging a $1,400 disconnection fee. “The fee could more than double the cost of swapping a gas stove for a new electric appliance, forcing homeowners offloading their last gas appliance to not only purchase the new one but also to bid the utility farewell by paying out the remainder of their share of the company’s debt.”
+One useful result of holding the COP in the UK was renewed attention to the Drax biomass plant, aka as The Simply Stupidest Power Plant On Earth, where they cut down American trees, turn them into pellets, ship them across the Atlantic, and set them on fire, thus managing to both remove a carbon sink and pour carbon into the atmosphere. Good piece here from the Telegraph
+A team of which I was a part published this paper on the links between structural racism and the covid and climate crises.
+Bad news for Exxon et al—the indomitable Zephyr Teachout is about to announce her candidacy for New York State attorney general. Given DC gridlock and a conservative Supreme Court, the AG’s offices in Albany and Sacramento are among the most important platforms in America, and Teachout has thought more about dangerous concentrations of power than anyone I know.
+Since we now have to build out clean energy fast, I found this Harvard Business Review essay from a civil engineer on how to make projects modular and repetitive to be very useful.
And speaking of repetition, subscribe.
While you’re waiting for the final text from Glasgow, I can guarantee you that the latest chapters from my epic nonviolent yarn will be more fun. (Which really isn’t saying much, but still). You can catch up on the first 23 chapters of The Other Cheek by visiting the archive.
As the meeting dissolved, Cass helped Professor Vukovic to his feet, and they walked slowly back to his office. It was, of course, cluttered—the big table where Cass worked was awash with files, but that was nothing compared to the professor’s desk, where papers and books were layered like sedimentary rock on a canyon wall. Plaques covered the walls—honorary degrees, and yellowed photos of him as a young man with people now so gone to history Cass had had to look them up on Wikipedia. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, J.B. Kripalani, Fannie Lou Hamer, Alexander Dubcek, Oliver Tambo.
When Cass had been awarded the job as his assistant at the end of her student year at SGI, she’d been pleased—not only was it an honor, but it meant another year at SGI, where she felt increasingly at home. But she’d also been a little worried. Professor Vukovic didn’t teach classes; in fact, he’d spoken precisely twice in the course of the entire school year. She feared that she’d spend much of the year in silence, trying to intuit how to help compile his famous archive of civil disobedience actions through history. “He’s 94,” she’d remembered saying to MK—Mahali Khatoane, her best friend from last year’s class, now living in San Francisco. “That’s four times my age. Four and two-thirds times my age.”
Cass had reported for her summer duties two weeks after graduation, following a trip home to see her parents. After settling into her new bedroom, she’d wandered the aspen groves for an hour, working up her courage to go knock on the door. There’d been no answer, so she’d slowly worked it open, peering around the corner. He was sitting in his green desk chair, wearing vest and tie as always, but looking at her with a smile. She walked through the door, she closed it behind her—and as soon as it clicked shut he began to talk.
“Sit down, sit down,” he’d said. “I’m a big fan of yours, read all of your papers last year, I’m very eager to hear what you’re thinking.”
“Thinking?” said Cass. “Mainly, I was thinking that I was scared to come talk to you.”
“Excellent, excellent,” said the old man. “That’s part of the reason.”
“Part of the reason what?”
“Part of the reason I zip my lip the minute I leave this office,” he said.
“I have found that if you don’t talk, then people imagine you are quite severe, and they tend to leave you alone. Which in the main is good, since I have—since we have—an enormous amount of work to do, and a limited time to do it in. I don’t know if you know, but I’m 94, which means that statistically my chance of lasting through any given week is only so so. And the odds of getting through it with my brain intact are lower still. So the fewer students seeking me out the better.”
“What’s the rest of the reason?” asked Cass.
“If you rarely talk, people imagine that whatever you do say must be very smart,” he said. “Oracular. So I save myself for necessary moments, which are few and far between. Most things—office politics, controversies—they loom up large and if you ignore them they go away. You can spend all your time on them, or none at all. I choose the latter.”
“But do you like to talk?” asked Cass.
“I love to talk,” he said. “That’s half your job, I fear—to talk with me. I don’t have many people left to talk with, you know. That’s another problem with 94.”
As Cass soon discovered, however, he actually had plenty of people to talk with. Every day messages arrived from around the world, from activists engaged in one struggle or another, eager for campaign ideas, historical parallels, connections to the past and present. One of her jobs was to politely shoo away people who wanted to give him awards or conduct interviews (“no time left for any of that,” he said), and another was to help answer the queries from real campaigners: Russian exiles wondering how best to take on Putin, Pacific islanders fighting for the right to immigrate as seas rose. Something new every time she checked the email. Only Maria—who was deeply involved in many of the same discussions—knew quite how busy the aged professor was.
But he was never too busy to gossip with Cass. When they returned to the office after the faculty meeting this morning, he pulled out his tin of Danish butter cookies and offered her one; she made tea. “I knew her, you know,” he said.
“Ayn Rand. Alisa Rosenbaum. She was in Hollywood when I got there after the war; she was making the movie of The Fountainhead. Terrible movie, worse book. What you’d expect if a narcissist read too much Nietzche. Remember that: it’s fine to read Nietzsche, but only with a little distance. Otherwise you’ll get sucked under, and it’s a very dark stream. Distance.”
“Okay,” said Cass, thinking there was no great danger of her overindulging in Nietzsche. “But what about Hollywood? What were you doing in Hollywood?”
“Hollywood was my first job in the States,” he said. “Paramount. I was technical advisor for war movies. How to blow stuff up. Bridges and train tracks especially—those were my specialty.”
“Blowing stuff up?” she said. “But you’re the non-violent . . .”
“I am now,” he said. “For the last 70 years. But in those days—in those days I was quite the terrorist. You knew I’m from Serbia, right?”
Cass nodded yes—she’d seen frequent, and affectionate, correspondence with the non-violent campaigners at Otpor, the Serbian group that had ousted President Milosevic and gone on to advise everyone from Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square to Burmese monks in the streets of Rangoon. The Serbs were among the very few who called him Marko, not Professor.
“Well, the Balkan governments joined the Germans at the start of the war. Fascists. I was a teenager, and I was a communist. A partisan. A follower of Tito, who you’ve never heard of. And since my father ran a chemist shop—a drugstore—I became the explosives expert. You’d call them IEDs now, but we just called them bombs. Night after night. I was good at it—careful, precise, paid attention to details, which meant I lasted longer than the rest of them. Bombers tended to die young.” He paused, sinking a little in his chair, his eyes drifting.
“But Hollywood,” said Cass, both to rally him, and because she wanted to know.
“Ah,” he said. “Well, you’ve never heard of the Ozbalt raid, of course, but it was a big deal in its day. 1944. Slovenes mostly, but they dispatched me from Serbia to help with the demolitions. The Germans had a POW camp just across the border in Austria, and we managed to free 130 prisoners one morning, mostly Brits but some Aussies and some Americans. We had to lead them a hundred miles over the mountains to the coast, and the Germans were on our tracks the whole time: they staged a night raid and got a few of us, but the rest made it. I was wounded—shot through the leg—so they took me off on the same boat with the prisoners. One of whom was a screenwriter. We became friends, and when he went to California to make a picture about the escape, he took me with him. Technical advisor. There were lots of other movies that needed explosions, so I was busy. People like me are probably still busy—I believe they are still blowing things up in movies?”
“Occasionally,” said Cass. “So why aren’t you? Blowing stuff up? Instead of—this,” she added, waving at the buttes and mesas of file folders stacked around the room.
“Well,” said Professor Vukovic. “I—I’d never been entirely comfortable with violence. I blew up train tracks and bridges, which sometimes killed people eventually, but one reason I specialized in demolition was so I wouldn’t have to shoot people, which the rest of the resistance . . . well, that’s what we all thought resistance was. Killing people. True, these were Nazis. But anyway, it actually bothered me more when I got to the movie set and it was all fake. I mean, now it was to entertain people. It seemed suspect. Suspect.”
“You were . . . Catholic?” Cass guessed.
“Orthodox. Serbian Orthodox. Or my family was. I was a communist, so no church,” he said. “But actually I was a scientist, or at least I would have been if the war hadn’t shut down schooling. I had a scientist’s mind. And so I wondered if war really was such an effective technique. Forget morality, just think effectiveness. I mean, Hitler had gotten beaten by actual armies, so that was good. But we’d just had another big war twenty years before that one. ‘The war to end all wars,’ except it hadn’t. And then there was Hiroshima—I knew enough about bombs to appreciate that this was a different size entirely. Too big. So I tried to approach it . . . scientifically. To see if there was another way. And it turned out there was. Maybe not another way to beat Hitler, but there aren’t many Hitlers.” Now it was Vukovic who gestured at the drifts of papers in the crowded office. “Most of the time this works better.”
“And anyway,” he continued, “I needed a new task. Because they’d found out I was a communist, or had been a communist anyway. That was fine during the war, because the communists were our allies, but after the war it was definitely not fine. That’s how I ‘met’ Ayn Rand. She was helping run something called the Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals, which was making sure people like me were blacklisted. She was right about communism, by the way—doesn’t work at all. But she was intellectually lazy enough to think that the only alternative was her manic individualism. She was so mad at the Soviets, or so marinated in Nietzsche, that it never occurred to her there were other kinds of solidarity. Our kind.”
Cass fell silent for a minute. That ‘our kind’ was the first time, she thought to herself, that she’d ever felt included in history. In a very minor way, of course. Mostly Cass felt young as she listened to his story—definitely juvenile, almost infantile. By the time Professor Vukovic was her age he’d derailed trains, blown up bridges, embraced and then discarded an ideology, moved from the old world to the new. She was starting to ask another question when an alarm on her phone vibrated. “Oh,” she said, fishing it out of her pocket and looking at the screen. “It’s time for your Skype call to the Seychelles? Where the military has the president in jail? They’re planning the scuba protest?”
“Underwater protest!” he said. “Like the Maldives in 2009, with Mohammed Nasheed. Can you get me that file?”
“I can,” she said. “Easily. Because I digitized it last week. We’re getting very close to the present, you know—almost everything’s in the cloud now. It won’t be long before we can get rid of all this paper for good.”
“Ah,” he said. Smiling, but wistfully. Cass shifted his chair precisely in front of the webcam, and worked on straightening his tie.
Cass felt a little like she’d stumbled on Harry trying to teach the other Gryffindors to cast a Patronus. Of course, the room wasn’t magically hidden—it was just the lab where during the day Professor Lee taught computer-based activism. There were monitors and Ethernet cables. And she wasn’t hidden in an invisiblity cloak— she was standing by a partially opened door, listening in.
Allie was talking to six other students, five of them boys. She could see Jukk, and Aadit from where she was standing, and Allie. And the thing one noticed first about Allie was: she was alive. Here eyes were dancing. She was attractive in the conventional sense of the word, Cass thought, but also in the literal sense. She remembered something Professor Vukovic had said in a web seminar with some Ukrainian university students the day before: “Above all, an organizer is someone other people like to be around.”
Allie was wearing a pink t-shirt with a quote from Ayn Rand: “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.” And she was handing out copies of a massive book, “Atlas Shrugged.” “This is my favorite novel,” she said. “If you read it, you’ll understand.”
“It’s pretty long,” said Jukk. “Can you, like, sum it up?”
“Well, said Allie, “’objectivism’ is what she called it. It’s about the purpose of life. Which is the pursuit of one’s own happiness.”
“That sounds selfish,” said someone—Cass couldn’t see who was talking, but thought it was Winston Liu, from Taipei.
“What’s selfish is getting in the way of other people living their lives—like John Galt, in the book. Read it and you’ll see, really,” said Allie. But Cass thought she was sounding a little desperate, as if worried she might be losing her audience. She was, after all, in a school filled with people who’d been chosen precisely because they’d taken a precocious interest in helping others.
“Why should anyone tell you who you should be able to love?” said Allie, trying to recapture her audience. “Why they should be able to tell you what you can or can’t put in your body? Why should they be able to send you off to war? That’s what governments do.”
“Yeah, and governments keep people from starving to death. And they keep companies from, like, dumping stuff in rivers,” said another voice—Cass was pretty sure it was Anand, the boy from Bangladesh.
“Not very well, they don’t” said Allie. “How’s the river where you’re from?”
“What about the gun?” said Jukk. “You ever shot it?”
Allie looked down at the holster on her boot, worn outside her very skinny jeans.
“You can shoot it someday,” she said. “We’ll have target practice—off in the woods. Just, like, read the book?”
People started to leave—it was nearly time for movie hour in the auditorium, part one of ‘Gandhi,’ which the school showed each year.
Cass backed around a corner so she wouldn’t be caught eavesdropping. She wasn’t at all sure what to do. Argue with Allie? But she sensed that arguing was what Allie wanted—she seemed almost to be spoiling for a fight. The anger wasn’t far beneath the perkiness. Cass could tell the faculty, of course, that one of the students was holding her own seminars, barely a week into the semester, and spreading pretty much the opposite message that SGI promoted. But they already knew she was a problem, and none of them had any real idea what to do.
“She’s in a story,” thought Cass. Stories were Cass’s specialty; Maria had told her last year that was why she’d been admitted to SGI, because she understood the power of story in people’s lives. “If you want to change her, change the story,” she told herself.
So when Allie left the room, holding four copies of the thick book which she hadn’t managed to hand out, Cass rounded the corner and pre-tended surprise. “Ah, Allie, I’ve been looking for you.”
“You have?” said Allie, a little suspiciously.
“Remember Gloria, from the other night at the airport?”
“The little girl?” said Allie.
“Yep—she liked you. A lot,” said Cass. “I—I need a favor. I go visit her every week, but I can’t this week. I, uh, have to do something for Professor Vukovic. Can you go? Just take her to the park, or wherever? You’d be perfect—you can even speak Spanish with her mother, which is easier for her.”
“Please,” said Allie. “She’s a good kid. And Maria will lend you her car.”