The World's Top Diplomat Has Had It Up to Here
The Secretary General of the UN models how to think about climate change
I can remember when some of us organized what may have been the planet’s first truly huge climate march, with 400,000 people descending on New York in 2014. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came to walk with us for a few blocks, and it was considered remarkable: the world’s top diplomat had previously been too diplomatic to join in protests challenging the policies of his member nations.
But as the climate crisis has deepened, the job of being spokesperson for the whole planet seems to be radicalizing its occupant. Current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has become as outspoken as Greta Thunberg in his denunciation of the countries and companies that are wrecking the planet. A couple of weeks ago, speaking at a conference sponsored by the Economist magazine, he accused the world of “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe… If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach. And that would be catastrophe.”
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But he grew far angrier this week, in remarks that accompanied the release of the new IPCC climate report. Here’s a small sampling:
“High‑emitting Governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability.”
Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.
And, perhaps most importantly of all:
Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness. Such investments will soon be stranded assets — a blot on the landscape and a blight on investment portfolios
These are the howls of a man who is charged—more than anyone else in the world—with representing the whole planet. The only other human with an audience and a mandate this global is probably Pope Francis—and he’s been just as scared and just as strong. It’s a poignant reminder of how different our politics would look, and our behavior would be, if we actually thought locally.
Instead, this week, nations forged ahead with business as usual—with precisely the moral and economic madness Guterres decried. Canada announced plans for a new oil mega-prject off the Newfoundland coast; France’s Macron, on the edge of an election, continued his quiet support for a huge new African pipeline to be built by French oil giant Total; Australia approved what the invaluable analyst Ketan Joshi called “comfortably the most climate-damaging project” in its history, even as the Great Barrier Reef underwent yet another round of catastrophic bleaching. And in the US, awash in windfall profit Big Oil seemed to have persuaded the Biden administration that it could help Ukraine only by giving it license to pump yet more.
We’re at a breaking point. The IPCC report got too little press (please read Amy Westervelt’s deep dives into its fascinating contents) but it got far more than the thousand noble climate scientists who engaged in civil disobedience around the world this week, to almost no notice.
When all the people without a vested interest—Guterres, the pope, climate scientists—have dropped their usual habit of caution, it should tell you something. Instead of diplomacy they are engaged in all-out advocacy—because we are scarily close to the brink, and because it’s become clear to them that our governments and corporations simply aren’t willing to change with anything like the speed required. We must all join in.
Other climate news from around the world
+In West Virginia, activists are planning a day-long blockade of the filthy little power plant that burns Joe Manchin’s coal. The New York Times recently told this story in all its ugly detail; read it but prepare for your blood pressure to rise. If you then need your blood pressure to drop a little, Terry Mollner’s essay about walking as activism should do the trick! But if it drops too low, then read this account of how Manchin, once again, is teasing his colleagues with hints he might vote for some watered-down climate bill, as long as it has lots of gifts for big oil. Environmental and labor groups are coming together for a DC rally on April 23 to try and make something happen
+Atmospheric levels of methane soared again last year, and by a record amount; much of the heat-trapping gas is spewing from frack wells. This is why it’s such utter folly to increase LNG exports in reaction to the war in Ukraine. In other deeply ungood news, California’s snowpack checked in at minuscule levels, after the driest winter season ever recorded in the Golden State.
+The need for funding to help developing countries adapt to climate damage is growing rapidly, a new assessment finds. But as usual it’s going to be hard to meet it, because the U.S. is lagging in its contributions. The scale of this problem was highlighted last week when the Congress cut any global vaccine aid from new covid appropriations; the GOP apparently has trouble understanding that viruses, and carbon, cross borders easily
+A new report details the shocking level of windfall profit that Big Oil is extracting from the suffering in Ukraine.
Six companies have begun paying additional dividends on top of their routine quarterly payments, including by implementing new variable dividends based on company earnings — a way of directing windfall profits immediately into private hands without any possibility of investment, employee benefits, or other uses. So far in 2022, these companies have started paying out an initial $3 billion in special windfall dividends.
Big Oil is not the only one gaming the system. A fascinating report from Duncan Campbell describes how utilities are charging ever more to deliver ever-cheaper renewable energy, thus undercutting the savings that could drive a rapid conversion to clean power.
If delivery costs continue to increase at the current pace, they’ll eat any savings generated by large-scale solar and wind. This is a problem for decarbonization, when around 130 million Americans live in a state where replacing an old gas furnace with a heat pump would create higher energy costs than simply buying another gas furnace.
+Iowa’s pigs outnumber its people 7-1 and produce more waste than the human populations of California, Texas, and Illinois combined. May I recommend pre-ordering Brian Kateman’s new book about reducing somewhat your bacon consumption, Meat Me Halfway?
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Our epic nonviolent yarn continues to unroll, this week in the western U.S. If you want to catch up on chapters 1-60 of The Other Cheek, the archive is here.
The Brown River courthouse hulked in the middle of the town square, turreted and domed and much too large for the small cluster of shops and churches that surrounded it. Maria and Cass idly read an historic marker explaining that the building had briefly housed the capital of the state. Apparently, after two years of capitalhood, better-connected boosters had moved that title a hundred miles north, leaving the outsized building behind to witness the town’s slow decline.
“He was”—Cass choked up.
“He was our dear friend,” said Maria. “And now we see his story through to the end.”
As the hands on the clock tower moved toward nine, they climbed the granite front steps and then a circular interior staircase to a majestic courtroom where a few dozen others waited on polished wood benches. Some were people from the camp—several of the other protesters, one with an oxygen tank cycling on and off with a hiss.
Soon enough a lanky man in a cowboy hat emerged from a door in the back of the room. He didn’t mount the steps to the judge’s bench, but instead stood at the low table where the defense lawyer in a trial would have sat. He looked out at the crowd. “Folks, my name is Gernie Hartcom,” he said. “I am the coroner of Warren County, and I will conduct this morning’s coroner’s inquest into the death of Marco Vukovic, two mornings ago along the railroad tracks near Crowfoot Canyon. The purpose of this inquest is to tentatively conclude a cause of death—in particular to determine if there’s reason to suspect foul play. It is not a trial, and no one is being charged; therefore we conduct it fairly informally, though all the witnesses will be sworn by the clerk”—he tipped his hat in the direction of an older woman who was leafing through papers on a desk beneath the judge’s bench—“and their answers will be part of the permanent record.”
“To begin,” he said, “can we please have the person who found the body?”
Cass stepped forward, and was sworn in. The coroner had her sit at one end of what would normally be the jury box, and shook her hand.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Colorado, your honor.”
“Not a judge,” he smiled. “You can call me Dr. Hartcom if you’d like. Now, you were familiar with Mr. Vukovic.”
“I was Professor Vukovic’s assistant,” she said.
“What was his field?”
“He researched non-violent action—he has the largest archive in the world on the subject,” said Cass. “Had. Or—well, it still exists.”
“And you accompanied him to this protest?”
“Yes, and I helped him into his tent that night, and then got in my own tent right next to it. Five feet away.”
“And during the night did you hear anything?”
“I heard a train go roaring through—it was only a few feet away.”
“And you went back to sleep?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And the next morning you went to look for the professor?”
“At breakfast time. And he wasn’t—wasn’t there,” she said.
“What did you think?”
“I worried because I knew he was weak—he had advanced pancreatic cancer,” she said. “He could barely walk unaided.”
“What did you do?”
“I got my friend Allie from her tent, and we started looking for him.”
“And did you find him?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice breaking. “I found his body. Down the tracks, a hundred yards from camp. Maybe ten feet from the rails.”
“He was dead when you found him?”
“He was . . . broken,” she said. “He was—“
“That’s just fine, thank you,” said the coroner, and he helped her back to her seat.
“I’m noting for the record,” said the coroner, “that my examination of the body makes it very clear Professor Vukovic was hit by a train. He had massive blunt force trauma to the entire left side of his body, and his spinal cord was snapped. He would have died instantly, in my opinion without feeling anything. To proceed, could we please have the engineer on that train come forward?”
A stout middle-aged man in pressed jeans and a too-tight blue blazer came forward, accompanied by a younger man in a charcoal suit and tie.
“Your honor—Mr. Coroner, sir,” said the second man. “If it please the court, I am Richard Dawkin, counsel for Continental Pacific railway, and I’ve been asked to accompany the witness, Mr. Lester Hamps.”
“That will be fine, counselor. Let’s swear you both in,” he said, and then accompanied them to the jury box.
“Now, Mr. Hamps, were you aware you hit the deceased?”
“I was aware I hit something, but I figured it was just a deer. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody out there then.”
“What do you mean?” asked the coroner.
The engineer started to answer, but a poke in the side from the lawyer stopped him. He listened to a whisper in his ear for a minute and then said, “It was . . . our understanding that the demonstration by the track was planned for the next morning.”
“When your train would normally have been scheduled to pass through the canyon?”
“And why did you proceed ahead of schedule?”
Before the engineer could answer, the lawyer whispered in his ear again, and handed him a sheet of paper, which he rested on his knee.
“It was a . . . normal decision in the course of efficient business operations,” he read.
“Oh,” said the coroner. “By the way, how long have you worked for Continental Pacific?”
“Thirty one years.”
“A long time,” said Gernie Hartcom. “And in that long time, do you ever remember a speed-up like this one?”
The engineer looked at the lawyer, who looked down and said “I’m going to have to advise Mr. Hamps not to answer that question, on, um, fifth amendment grounds.”
“Self-incrimination?” said the coroner. “Okay. One more question, Mr. Hamps, that goes to the question of who’s at fault here. Did you make the decision to move up the schedule, or did someone make it for you?”
“He won’t be answering that question,” said the lawyer quickly. “I think it’s time for his testimony to end.”
“Well, then, thank you both,” said the coroner, who seemed bemused. “I’m not really sure if there’s anything left to ask then. We know the cause of death, and we have a pretty good idea what might have caused it, so barring other information I’m inclined—yes, Miss Goldfarb?”
Cass had raised her hand. “You didn’t ask,” she said, “but Professor Vukovic left a . . . note with me the night before. A couple of them, actually, but only one that might matter here. I don’t know if it does, but—“ Cass held out the piece of paper to the coroner. “You’re previously sworn,” he said. “You can testify that this is in the hand of Professor Marko Vukovic?” he said, looking at the neat printing.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“Would you like to read it?”
“To Whom It May Concern,” Cass read. “Our somewhat novel strategy of using terminally ill patients to tie up the train tracks has, I think, been proven to be at least somewhat effective, a development which causes me a certain measure of professional gratification. However, there is one possibility that worries me, and that is that the tactic puts the train crews in a very tough situation. I would not like to think that, were I to come to harm, my last act would result in life-altering consequences for another human being. So in that eventuality, I would like to ask the authorities to consider the possibility that, as a terminally ill cancer patient, I might have expired on the track prior to any accident, or that—perhaps saddened by my approaching painful death—I might have chosen to take my own life by jumping in front of a moving locomotive. These considerations should, I think, be enough to complicate any assignment of blame. Or so I hope.” Cass stopped reading.
“Would you say,” the coroner asked Cass, after thinking for a minute, “would you say that the professor was an extraordinary man? Remember, you’re under oath.”
“I would say he was the most extraordinary person I ever met,” said Cass. Her eyes were wet, but she was smiling at Maria, who smiled back.
“I would have to agree,” said the coroner. “I didn’t know him in life, but in death he was quite remarkable. I was ready, a minute ago, to determine the cause of death and to hold the engineer and his employer culpable. I will emphasize ‘employer’ in this context,” he said, staring at the lawyer. “I find now that Professor Vukovic’s . . . logic makes that impossible.” He scratched on a paper form for a moment, before handing it to the clerk. “Warren County will find that the cause of death is . . . undetermined, and that there is no reason to hold Mr. Hamps in connection with it. Mr. Hamps, you owe your freedom to the man you plowed into. This finding does not preclude a civil action against the railroad—and in fact,” he said, looking intently at Cass, “I would be gratified for the chance to testify should such an opportunity to arise. This coroner’s inquest is adjourned.”
The coroner handed the professor’s letter to the clerk, and asked her to make a copy and return the original to Cass. He shook her hand once more and headed for the door. Cass took the paper and walked out into the row of benches, where Maria was waiting with a hug. “He liked you too,” she said. “An awful lot.”
“Either of you two ever hear of Appalachin?” SAC Fox asked. He was sitting in a white panel van. On the outside was a view of the Colorado woods. On the inside were three leather chairs and an floor to ceiling array of electronic gear—screens, GPS trackers, headphones hanging on hooks.
Neither Taz Anderson nor Minnie Reyes had heard of Appalachin, or if they had they knew not to interrupt their boss when he was telling a story. So the special agent in charge of their FBI detail continued. “This was 1957—long, long before my time of course,” he said. “Long, long before. Anyway, it was a tiny town in upstate New York, somewhere near the Pennsylvania border. The Catskills, the Poconos, in there. There was a local cop who noticed that there were, like, three dozen luxury cars lining the side of this dirt road. In those days you really noticed luxury cars— think, like, fins. Anyway, he started calling in license plates, and it was pretty clear that a lot of these guys were criminals. Radioed for a bunch of state police, and they knocked on the door, and all of a sudden there were Italian guys in suits pouring out of the back of the house into the woods. They were wandering around in the mud in their loafers—I think they arrested like, fifty.”
“This was not a Bureau operation?” said Anderson.
“God no,” said Fox. “J. Edgar Hoover had spent decades insisting there was no such thing as organized crime, so he could concentrate on communists. But that was pretty hard after the pictures in the paper of sixty guys named Luigi and Giovanni wandering around in the forest.”
“I can guess why you’re thinking about it today,” said Reyes.
“I’d love to go knock down that door and flush those folks out,” said Fox. “I really would. I mean, that has to be the greatest gathering of subversives the world has ever seen. How many passports did we pull at Denver airport?”
“83,” said Anderson. “From 47 countries. And it looks like we missed dozens.” They looked at their screens, which showed a feed from the Mandela auditorium on the SGI campus, where speaker after speaker was telling stories about Marko Vukovic.
“This is not a yoga school,” said Reyes.
“I can do more yoga than these people,” said SAC Fox, who looked as if he did very little yoga. “These people cause trouble.”
“They are peaceful, though?” said Anderson. “Like, we couldn’t stop most of them at the airport because they had records, but for, like, trespass? Or a couple of them were, like, ‘failure to respect the dignity of the supreme leader.’”
“Respecting the dignity of the supreme leader—that’s not something to laugh at,” said Fox, who was reddening. “Terrorists we can deal with— they blow something up, and our budget goes up the next month. They use guns—we have way more guns than they ever will. But these kind of people do not play fair.”
“No sir,” said Minnie Reyes, giving Anderson a sharp look. “No sir they don’t.”
“Do you know that once—when the director was visiting the San Francisco office—they poured glitter on him. And me,” said Fox, looking at his jacket as if expecting to see small gold flecks still there. “Simply because we were enforcing the laws, and there were laws then, against their particular ‘lifestyle.’”
“That’s—that’s just wrong, sir,” said Reyes.
“This is the leader, I think,” said Anderson, as Maria stood up at the podium. She’d been crying, but she was smiling broadly.
“Thank you for coming, thank you everyone,” she said. “I know most of you, at least by reputation and by Skype, but I think we’re all overwhelmed to see so many of you in the flesh. I know our students”—and here she nodded to the fifty young people in the back rows of seats and sitting on the stairs—“are somewhat starstruck to see the people they’ve been reading about and studying.”
“What do we have on her?” said SAC Fox.
“Filipino native, name Maria Santos, supposedly a nun but the local diocese has no record.”
“Fake nun,” muttered Fox, as Maria continued.
“So it’s been a pleasure to hear these reminiscences from Marko’s life. But of course you all know him well enough to know he would have been sitting stolidly through them. He was deeply interested in history—his archives are our school’s great glory, and your stories are all included in loving detail. But he was only interested in that history as a way to make more trouble in the future. Which is why I want you to meet one of our students, Allie Salgado, who has something to share with you.”
Allie made her way slowly to the front of the lecture hall, picking her way over the bodies of her fellow students who were sprawled along the stairs. “That’s the Texas gun girl,” agent Anderson said.
“Hello,” said Allie. “I knew Professor Vukovic a shorter time than almost anyone here, but I loved him a lot. He kind of changed my life. Anyway, the afternoon before he died, he sat down in his tent and wrote two letters, and then he gave them to me and Cass. Cass read one to the coroner’s inquest, and it kept a man from going to jail. I’m going to read the other one here.
“Dear Friends. I wish I could be there to see you. Of course, if I was still there, you wouldn’t be, so that’s an illogical wish, but a fond one. I am so grateful to have gotten to watch you at work in the world these past decades.
As many of you know, I’ve always been an optimist. Partly this is because when you grow up in very bad times—in Hitler’s time, and Stalin’s—everything that comes after seems not so bad. Mostly it’s because I’ve seen people like you cause enormous change. In my life we’ve seen colonialism collapse and racism begin to erode and sexism falter. Not by accident, but because of hard work, some of it by the people listening to these words. I have no doubt—no doubt at all—that those efforts will continue. Sometimes history will seem to run backwards, but mostly we’ll make progress.
“But as my close colleagues know, there are two topics that worry me, precisely because they seem to me to end history.
“The first is climate change.”
“I knew he was going to say ‘climate change’” said SAC Fox. “All these people are nuts about climate change. If climate change is so bad, how come people go where it’s hot for their vacation? Huh?” Agent Reyes nodded vigorously.
“Climate change is the ultimate reason we were fighting oil trains, of course,” read Allie, pausing as she flipped the page. “But that’s just a tiny part of a big fight. I know many of you are involved in other parts of the battle. I don’t know how it will come out, but I’m glad it’s fully engaged. Nonviolence is the most powerful tool we have to save the only planet we’ve got.
“But I actually want to talk about the other battle that haunts me now, one that hasn’t really been engaged yet. One that we don’t think about as much. It doesn’t even really have a name, but as I’ve been reading about it I’ve come to think of it as the fight to stay human. There are an ensemble of technologies aimed at our humanity: artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, genetic engineering to produce designer babies. These things seem ‘progressive.’ Often it’s only ‘conservatives’ who have opposed them. And I know that some of you are sitting there thinking this is the rambling of an old man. Which, of course, it is. But because I’m old I’ve watched other ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’ ideas. This scares me. Just as I like the planet on to which I was born, so I like the species I’ve been a part of. I know it has problems, our species, but they seem to me solvable, as long as we still exist. So all I’m asking is that you do a little research, a little thinking. If you decide I’m wrong, that’s fine. But if you decide I’m right—well, I’m pretty sure the people capable of doing the most about it are sitting around you right now.”
The crowd was listening intently, and several people were scratching notes on pads or tapping on their phones.
Allie sat down, and Maria got up again. “All of you will get a copy of that letter,” she said. “For now, slivovitz and cake in the dining hall,” she said. “We will raise a glass to Marko, and continue sharing our stories.”
“These are some of our biggest entrepreneurial companies he’s talking about,” said SAC Fox, lifting off his earphones. “Robots. Genetics. This is a serious threat to California commerce. You will need more personnel, Agent Reyes—a true task force.”
“Yes sir,” she said.