We Need the Climate Fight That Biden Promised
Bill McKibben / The New Yorker
(July 17, 2021) — Having had almost thirty-five years to come to terms with climate change, I’m used to the contours of our dilemma. Even so, the past two weeks have frightened me, both for what feels like a rapid acceleration in the pace of the planet’s heating and for what feels like a slowdown in a few key corners of the Biden Administration’s attempts to take its measure.
This past weekend saw what may be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded: a round hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit at Death Valley, in California, on Friday. But the previous heat wave — the one centered on the Pacific Northwest and Canada — may have been more anomalous. Instead of breaking records by a degree or two, it smashed the old marks by five, six, nine degrees. The temperature in Lytton, British Columbia, hit a hundred and twenty-one degrees — the highest ever measured in Canada — and, the next day, most of Lytton burned to the ground, in one of a series of increasingly out-of-control wildfires.
Almost five hundred people died in British Columbia in the course of five days, “compared with an average of one hundred sixty-five in normal times,” and more than a billion sea creatures may have perished in the coastal waters. The early “attribution studies” from scientific teams say that this extreme heat would have been “impossible” without climate change — but that’s pretty obvious. Less obvious, and more scary, is the possibility that the heat may be part of a vicious feedback loop that drives temperatures ever higher.
“This is by far the largest jump in the record I have ever seen,” Friederike Otto, the associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “We should definitely not expect heatwaves to behave as they have in the past . . . in terms of what we need to prepare for.” A Dutch colleague added, “We are now much less certain about heatwaves than we were two weeks ago. We are very worried about the possibility of this happening everywhere but we just don’t know yet.”
I was in the desert Southwest for much of the past two weeks, travelling across a wide swath of land that also saw record temperatures, and I can testify about one of the mechanisms that may be driving them. The ground is desiccated: in more normal times, the evaporation of soil moisture uses some of the sun’s energy, but now there is nothing left to evaporate, so the land just bakes. To feel that dryness, to shuffle through the sand of the desert in midafternoon while the sun hammers down, is to understand the new world we’re building — and not over centuries, or even decades.
The damage seems to be increasing season by season: as the drought deepens in the West, even the occasional rains barely make a dent; the reservoirs of the Colorado River behind the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams are at record lows, exposing old side canyons and even resurrecting rapids that drowned when the reservoirs were originally filled.There’s less water to run through the dams’ turbines, as the demand for air-conditioning rises: Las Vegas tied its record high temperature of a hundred and seventeen degrees on Saturday, which means that a lot of cooling was required to keep the fun going.
People say that deserts aren’t meant for cities, but there are 2.6 million people living in greater Las Vegas, and 4.7 million in greater Phoenix. If we’re suddenly facing existential risks to this much of the country, you’d expect leaders in Washington to be all over the problem, if for no better reason than political calculus — the region has red states, blue states, and purple states. Yet Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, chose the occasion to tell a crowd, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is . . . bullshit.” O.K., he mouthed the word, but he’s from the toss-the-snowball-in-the-Senate party. It’s in the Administration, which truly cares about climate change and indeed has promised a “whole-of-government” effort to defeat it, where a kind of half-heartedness would be more dangerous if it emerged.
Congress is part of the whole-of-government approach, obviously, and even though everything there has to run through Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who has expressed “grave concerns” that we might be moving too fast on projects such as electric vehicles, there are signs of real progress. On Tuesday, it appeared that Senate Democrats had agreed on a $3.5-trillion spending bill to supplement the bipartisan infrastructure pact, which will direct funds to fight climate change. If that holds it’s good news (though we’ll still be trailing the European Union, which on the same day announced the first steps toward an ambitious fifty-five-per-cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030).
Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer even declared that gas is as much a problem as coal — a major step for the Democrats. So there’s progress but no guarantees. And the courts are part of the government, too — and a federal judge just struck down President Biden’s Day One effort to pause oil and gas leasing on public land.
To even things out, you’d need the executive branch hitting on every cylinder. Much credit to those in the White House who helped spur the Senate announcement, but there seem to be other corners of the Administration where the whole-of-government approach has not quite permeated. The Agriculture Department and the Justice Department, for example, are allowing Trump-era policies on old-growth forests and gas pipelines to proceed. (The proposed Black Ram clearcut in Montana’s Yaak Valley is a stark example — scientists are very clear that old-growth forest is a key tool for carbon sequestration.)
The problem is particularly overt when it comes to the case of Juliana v. United States, perhaps the most important climate-change litigation ever pursued in this country. The suit, filed in 2015 by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust on behalf of twenty-one young people, argues that the government has a public-trust obligation to protect their future, and that, in not reacting swiftly to the climate crisis, it violates their constitutionally guaranteed right to life and liberty.
Many observers have been surprised by how far the case advanced. Earlier this year, though, a Ninth Circuit panel sent the case back to the district court with instructions to dismiss it outright, for lack of standing and on the ground that only the legislative branch can make such regulations. In May, however, instead of dismissing the case, a district court judge ordered both sides to settle; the talks are still in progress. If no settlement is reached, the case would then likely go to trial. The Department of Justice should let it, rather than try to sideline it further: if only on political grounds, it would be extremely helpful to the Administration if a court forced it to take some of the difficult steps that the next few years will require.
If what we’ve seen out West these past weeks is the new baseline, then the Biden Administration needs to make the whole-of-government effort it promised. Or at least the whole-of-the-executive-branch. And it needs to do so wholeheartedly.
Passing the Mic
By the World Bank’s estimate, the fashion industry is responsible for ten per cent of global carbon emissions — far more than, say, air travel. The environmental toll is high enough that you wouldn’t want to waste any of what emerges from textile mills, which is why Jessica Schreiber and Camille Tagle founded FABSCRAP to collect and reuse the huge amounts of excess fabric that the industry produces even before you buy a shirt and hang it in the back of the closet forever. They’ve lured about five hundred and twenty-five companies, including J. Crew, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, and Macy’s, to participate. (Our conversation has been edited.)
Take us through the life of one of your scraps, from the moment it’s cut to the end use that you put it to.
The majority of what we receive is fabric swatches. These are small samples of fabric, most are six-inch squares, and they are usually stapled, glued, or taped to a card with information about the fabric and the fabric mill that creates it. Mills send these swatches to designers to showcase their new fabrics each season — it’s essentially a marketing tool. Designers receive hundreds, if not thousands, of swatches throughout a season. Designers may keep a few for reference before ordering sample yards of their chosen fabrics, but the majority are thrown away. They’re either headed to the landfill, or to us. We sort the swatches for downcycling, recycling, or reuse. Less than ten per cent of the fabrics we receive are a-hundred-per-cent cotton (six per cent), polyester (two per cent), or wool (one per cent).
There are a few chemical and mechanical technologies in development that can turn these fibres back into fabric — true recycling. About sixty per cent of the fabrics are fibre blends that will be shredded — downcycled — to create shoddy, a fibre pulp that’s used to make insulation and carpet padding. The remaining thirty per cent of fabric blends we receive contain spandex (or elastic). This rubber additive melts during the shredding process, so we separate it out. We save these fabrics, as well as all sequins and leather pieces, for reuse.
In addition to these small pieces, we receive unwanted rolls of fabric, full leather skins, buttons, zippers, lace, cones of yarn, even unfinished garment samples. We have a fabric thrift store and an online store where this saved-from-landfill material is available to students, artists, quilters, and crafters. We aim to give away as much fabric as we sell.
You have six thousand volunteers, mostly based in New York. What are they doing?
Volunteers are helping us sort the material we receive. We sort by the fibre content. No fabric knowledge is necessary to be a volunteer! The swatch cards list the fibre content of each piece. We have to remove the paper and cardboard, as well as staples, stickers, or tape, from the fabric swatches before they can be shredded. (The paper and cardboard is recycled as well.)
We also sort any larger cuts (one yard plus), trims, embellishments, leather skins, yarns, and finished or unfinished garment samples for reuse. We have a morning and afternoon volunteer session every day. As a thank you, volunteers have the opportunity to keep five pounds of fabric for free. It’s a great way to learn about fabrics, see behind the scenes in the design process, and take home material for their own projects.
How do you think about the word “waste” now?
We’ve always had “waste” in our mission statement because we believe that “waste” was and is still a valuable resource. We think a lot about the natural and human resources that go into creating fabric and other design materials. What we’ve found is that, in a black trash bag or a box, it’s easier to dismiss. When we spend some time and energy sorting through it, we find the most beautiful pieces. When we can organize and display what was “waste,” we’re able to showcase its value and extend its life.
Whether it’s used or unused material, there are so many ways to reuse, recycle, redistribute, re-create, and repair items that we shouldn’t ignore or discard anything, really. We’re inspired all the time by the creativity we see in those who volunteer and shop at FABSCRAP — they are coming up with incredible ways to rethink fashion.
CNN provides an in-depth account of how the European Union loophole that treats biomass energy as “carbon-neutral” is both producing enormous emissions and damaging rural communities in the American Southeast. As one E.U. official explains, the Continent’s leaders have been “too naïve” about the impact of burning trees for electricity. “The production of biomass has become an industrial process, which means something has gone fundamentally wrong,” he said. “The professionalization of the biomass industry is a problem that needs attention.” (Greta Thunberg chimed in, too.)
Chicago — far from hurricanes and wildfires — nonetheless finds itself on the front lines of the climate crisis. The Times’ interactives team has produced an essay on how the rapidly fluctuating water level of Lake Michigan threatens the delicate hydrological balance that the city has maintained since its founding.
A new report on smoke from wildfires indicates that it’s a growing public-health problem around the world. As an Australian cardiologist puts it, “If this is what we experience regularly, we just can’t live here.”
The movement for environmental justice keeps growing and deepening: follow this emerging collaboration between two pitchers for the Milwaukee Brewers, Devin Williams and Brent Suter. “The way we see it, the environment and racial justice are interconnected. Black, Latino and Native American neighborhoods disproportionately suffer from poor air quality because of impacts from landfills, factories and mines. We hope that the federal government will build on some important progress to rectify that this year,” they write. They’re also involved in a project to cut the travel emissions for professional sports teams in half.
New research from University College London shows that developing countries tend to pay much higher rates to finance green energy than to finance fossil fuel. As Bloomberg’s Kate McKenzie explains, “this creates a ‘climate investment trap.’ ”
Leah Stokes and Katharine Wilkinson launch Season 2 of their “Matter of Degrees” podcast with an examination of “the prestige problem” — how the fossil-fuel industry taps into high-powered ad agencies, law firms, and elsewhere to avoid having to make the changes the climate crisis requires. Another podcast — “City Climate Corner” — is looking at how small cities and suburbs are tackling the climate crisis: a recent episode features Laramie, Wyoming, in the heart of coal country.
A petition campaign for a four-day workweek is up and running, driven in part by a British study showing that it could cut carbon emissions from the U.K. by twenty-one per cent.
Earthrise — a “digital platform and creative studio” devoted to environmental action — has a stylish new short film that lays out the story that journalists have uncovered over the past decade showing that oil companies knew about and covered up climate change.
“All We Can Save,” an anthology of climate writing by women around the world, comes out in paperback next week, and the editors are planning a launch party and virtual symposium. Tune in for talks by Elizabeth Yeampierre, Heather McTeer Toney, and many others.
The NDN Collective, a group of indigenous-led climate activists, has released an optimistic and beautiful video.
The publishers of the National Catholic Reporter have divested their endowmentfrom fossil fuel. “I see the board’s decision as another ‘step’ in the journey that Pope Francis has invited all of us to take in the efforts needed to care for our common home, the Earth,” the board’s chairman, Jim Purcell, said.
TransCanada Corporation is demanding fifteen billion dollars in damages from the United States government, under NAFTA, because the Biden Administration cancelled plans for its Keystone pipeline.
Some New Yorkers who pay their gas bill to National Grid are withholding sixty-six dollars from their monthly payments in protest of a planned fracked-gas North Brooklyn pipeline. The money, organizers say, is an individual customer’s share for the total cost of the project.
The University of Calgary has suspended its bachelor’s program in oil-and-gas engineering. An official said that the school decided that “we need to give students a chance to learn about what geothermal means, what hydrogen energy means, wind and solar, and then package that together, so when students graduate from here, they are actually stronger and will be able to better perform once they go into whichever segment of the energy industry that they end up.”
As protestors take to the streets in Cuba, defying a violent government crackdown, Americans across the political spectrum have a chance to break with old canards about the country. Progressives should understand that there is nothing remotely “progressive” about the thuggish, oppressive, neo-Stalinist government of Cuba. And conservatives should understand that six decades of embargoes, sanctions and unrelenting animosity have been an utter, dismal, counterproductive failure.
It is long past time to try something different: We need to tear down the metaphorical wall that bisects the Florida Straits and permit all manner of sustained engagement. Standing in solidarity with the Cuban people and supporting their aspirations would be much more terrifying to Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel than any new punitive measures we might impose.
The protests that erupted Sunday in cities and towns across the island have no antecedent in the communist era. The nearest comparison was a violent demonstration that took place in central Havana in 1994, during what the regime calls the “special period” — the years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when generous subsidies from Moscow ended and Cuba suffered crippling shortages of just about everything, especially food.
Today, once again, there is widespread and desperate privation, due to the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and a set of gratuitously cruel new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. But Sunday’s protests were more numerous, more geographically dispersed and, most notably, were overtly political. One group of demonstrators even stood outside the headquarters of the Communist Party of Cuba and chanted: “Cuba is not yours!”
Typhoon In-Fa destroys China! 450,000 people evacuated from Shanghai!
It is hard to overstate how much courage it took to challenge the regime so brazenly. The protesters knew they would surely face consequences that could include loss of employment, denial of housing, even years in prison. We should do what we can to ensure their sacrifice is not in vain.
I got to know Cuba in the early 2000s while making 10 extended trips there to research a book. Every time I went to the island, I felt more affection and admiration for the Cuban people — and a deeper loathing for the government that stunts and deforms their lives.
Yes, the regime under founding dictator Fidel Castro produced impressive gains in education, resulting in near-universal literacy. And the country trained a surplus of doctors and developed a health system that produces first-world results on indices such as infant mortality — though some of those statistics may be manipulated.
But with a few exceptions, the schools and hospitals I visited were crumbling. Much of the housing stock was crumbling, too, and horribly overcrowded. I admired the egalitarian ethos — the pride people felt in the fact that a highly trained medical doctor could live in a grim Soviet-style apartment complex next door to a garbage collector. But the elite “heroes of the revolution” I got to know, the famous athletes and musicians, lived in nice suburban-style houses and had permits allowing them to privately own cars, saving them the trouble of waiting hours for overcrowded buses that might or might not ever arrive. As George Orwell would have observed, some Cubans are more equal than others.
There is no freedom of expression in Cuba. There is no freedom of the press. There is no freedom of assembly. There are no competing political parties. The Cuban system has no resemblance to democratic socialism, because there is nothing remotely democratic about it. And Afro-Cubans showed me that racism, while diminished from the pre-revolution era, still warps Cuban society.
So how should the Biden administration proceed at this pivotal moment? First, it should do no harm. Like the Castro brothers before him, Díaz-Canel blames all of Cuba’s woes — and the “need” for censorship and other repressions — on the trade embargo and other hostile actions by the United States. Most of the anti-regime Cubans I know oppose the embargo, too. I fear that ratcheting up the pressure right now, as hard-liners advocate, would be more likely to inflame pro-government nationalist sentiment than to topple the regime.
Biden should make clear that the United States stands with the Cuban people, supports their yearning for freedom, and is ready to help with the coronavirus vaccines and food assistance. He should rescind the absurd Trump-era designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which it is not. And if pro-democracy groups in Cuba believe it is a good idea, he should look into providing the island with Internet access, which the regime limits — and this week cut off — as an instrument of control.
Longer-term, U.S. policy should be to end the travel and trade embargoes and flood Cuba with American tourists, entrepreneurs and ideas. Trying to starve the Cuban regime into submission hasn’t worked. Flooding it with freedom just might.
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