What Planet Do I Live On?
a little bit of a rant
Yesterday, Rep. Ro Khanna’s energy subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee released a tranche of documents from various Big Oil companies, designed in part to build support for a windfall profits tax on the huge sums that these firms have sucked in this year thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war. The documents show how mercenary and devious the companies have been, pretending to back climate action like the Paris climate accords but in fact working to make sure they are a dead letter.
But I confess I got stuck on the very first document the committee released, which you can see above. I got stuck because it’s…about me, and who doesn’t, in their heart of hearts, love/hate reading what people secretly think of you?
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From what one can decipher from the email chain, a woman named Virginia Northington, who once had worked for the great historian Douglas Brinkley, later joined something called the Brunswick Group which “helps companies navigate a complex array of societal challenges, as well as articulating a company’s ‘purpose,’” and whose “Climate Hub helps businesses respond to climate change.” There Ms. Northington went to work “advis[ing] American, British, and European clients on litigation and crisis mandates,” which in the spring of 2016 (i.e. right after the Paris climate accords) apparently meant clipping out opeds from me and forwarding them to a long list of BP executives. One of those executives, Robert Stout, now a vice-president for regulatory policy and advocacy, responded that the Los Angeles Times essay she’d passed around was a “must-read,” which is a nice thing to say but I don’t think he meant it that way. One of his employees, the director of communications and external affairs, responded in more heartfelt fashion. As Mr. Tom Wolf wrote to a long list of colleagues as follows:
I'm sorry, I live on earth so I don't get what planet this guy lives on. We all know his diatribe has many holes in it...but his biggest one is the infrastructure piece. Americans are fighting pipelines, but they are also fighting transmission lines
that would bring wind energy and solar energy to market....they are fighting utility solar farms in the desert because it affects the desert turtle, they are fighting home solar that looks ugly.
Simply put, Americans have a Dire Straits mentality. They want their money for nothin' and their chicks for free
For the record, as readers of this newsletter know, this is one issue where I’m not a hypocrite. I fight for solar even if someone thinks it looks ugly , and I’ve been doing it for a long time. And in fact my home has solar panels all over the top, and on a couple of poles in the yard—they’re not as pretty as the surrounding trees, except when you think about what they mean, which is that we can now get the energy we need from the sun instead of, say, ripping a hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico which then leaks for six months in what was the largest oil spill ever.
But it was Wolf’s language that really got me thinking. “I don’t get what planet this guy lives on,” he asks, and so let me answer.
I live on a different planet than the one I was born on. That one had plenty of ice at each pole, and lots of coral reefs in between. The great glaciers of the Alps and the Himalayas and the Andes were locked in icy grandeur; the seasons, in my home parts, stretched on as they had for millennia, ever since the retreat of the last Ice Age.
But now I live on a planet—I called it Eaarth once, in the title of a book—that looks somewhat like that old one, but is irrevocably changed. The first pictures we ever took of it, the ones that came back from the Apollo missions, are now hopelessly out of date: there’s a lot less white and a lot more blue up top because most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic is gone. The pH of the oceans on this new planet is different, and so is the chemical composition of the atmosphere: the air now holds much higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, and as a result the temperature has gone well beyond what humans have ever experienced before. On this planet people starve—right now, this year—because it doesn’t rain anymore where they live, and they go hungry because it rains more than it’s ever rained before. On this planet the sea level has begun to climb, threatening to wipe out entire nations. On this planet tens of millions of our brothers and sisters are already on the move, because they can no longer live in the places where they were born.
It’s a deeply unjust planet, because the people who caused the temperature to rise are not usually the people who suffer the most from that rise. And it’s an arguably insane planet, because so many of the people who run it ignored for decades the clear warning of scientists that we faced a stiff but surmountable challenge. Worse than ignored—the leaders of the fossil fuel industry, at the time the biggest and richest industry on the planet, suppressed and denied the truth. Few were more disgusting about it than BP, which originally sought to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum (doubtless advised by someone like the Brunswick Group) and then decided that wasn’t making enough money so they dropped the idea and returned to just plain old Petroleum. It invested heavily in shale fracking, and in Alberta’s tar sands, literally the dirtiest possible oil.
But it’s also a planet filled with remarkable people, who have rallied by their millions to stand up to people like Mr. Wolf, trying in the process to write a new future for this planet. While he’s sat around commenting sardonically on opeds, they’ve marched, gone to jail, and often won (when they beat the Keystone pipeline, they cost those tarsands investments real money). There are far more of us then there are of him; in a world where BP’s billions didn’t buy politicians, we’d have long since won these fights.
And we will win those battles, or at least keep trying. Because we live on a planet that, though degraded by the greed of Big Oil, still has such heart-searing beauty. It’s a world where creeks still tumble down mountainsides, where trees still spread their branches to make shade in the heat, where hummingbirds and anteaters remind us of the whimsy of evolution, where people love and protect each other, family and strangers both. It’s a good world still, and worth the defending. Complex, buzzing, cruel, mysterious, sexy, alive. For a while yet anyway, no thanks to BP.
Oh, and Dire Straits? I mean, come on. Just because you flak for an oil company doesn’t mean you can’t find someone with a bit more groove to frame your social commentary. Let me nominate Mr. Marvin Gaye, who might have been thinking of BP when he wrote lyrics considerably more immortal than anything from the Knopfler brothers.
Ah, things ain't what they used to be
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north and south and east
End of rant. I’m glad they read what I write, and I’m glad they pass it around, and I’m glad that it scares them and makes them sad. I’ll keep at it.
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In other climate and energy news this week:
+A landmark new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis looks at carbon capture projects around the world and finds they…don’t work. Instead:
Failed/underperforming projects considerably outnumbered successful experiences.
Captured carbon has mostly been used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): enhancing oil production is not a climate solution.
Using carbon capture as a greenlight to extend the life of fossil fuels power plants is a significant financial and technical risk: history confirms this.
+David Wallace-Wells is really using his new platform at the New York Times to advance critical parts of the climate story, and this week’s coverage of China is no exception:
China also seems to occupy a confusing place in the landscape of climate geopolitics because that landscape has shifted lately as well. Ten years ago, or even five, climate diplomacy often meant rhetorical appeals to global cooperation mixed with realpolitik efforts to move more slowly than your rivals. Today, decarbonization is still happening much too slowly, but fast enough to move the diplomatic dynamics away from a rivalry of inaction toward an apparent rivalry of action. Climate investment is booming in the United States, and with the CHIPS act and the I.R.A. climate bill now passed into law, the country has affirmatively joined what Politico recently called a new “green-energy arms race.”
+A group of blue-state treasurers have against efforts by their fossil-fueled counterparts to limit environmentally responsible investing:
The blacklisting states apparently believe, despite ample evidence and scientific consensus to the contrary, that poor working conditions, unfair compensation, discrimination and harassment, and even poor governance practices do not represent material threats to the companies in which they invest. They refuse to acknowledge, in the face of sweltering heat, floods, tornadoes, snowstorms and other extreme weather, that climate change is real and is a true business threat to all of us.
Disclosure, transparency, and accountability make companies more resilient by sharpening how they manage, ensuring that they are appropriately planning for the future. Our work, alongside those of other investors, employees, and customers have caused many companies to evolve their business models and their internal processes, better addressing the long term material risks that threaten their performance.
+Yvon Chouinard is an awfully good guy. Thanks!
+It was the hottest summer on record for Europe and for China. Thanks BP! Thanks Brunswick Group!