Bill McKibben: What Will It Take to Cool the Planet?

Thanks to pressure from the Gwich’in First Nation, five of the six biggest U.S. banks have agreed not to finance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.Photograph by Christopher Miller / NYT / Redux

This week’s newsletter is a little different, in that I mainly want to encourage you to watch a video and then play with a Web site. Both come from the remarkable people at Climate Interactive, a project that grew out of M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management. I’ve admired the group’s co-directors, Elizabeth Sawin and Andrew Jones, for many years, and watched their En-roads simulator grow from fairly crude beginnings into a truly sophisticated and useful model. It allows you to change different variables to see what it would take to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to get us off our current impossible track (screeching toward a world something like four degrees Celsius hotter) and onto the merely miserable heading of 1.5 to two degrees Celsius envisioned in the Paris climate accords.

I pointed out last week that the covid-19 pandemic has taught us something interesting: even locking down most of the planet didn’t cut emissions as much as we might have thought. (By early April, daily carbon-dioxide emissions decreased by seventeen per cent.) This suggests that a great percentage of the trouble is hardwired into our systems, and not solely a function of our habits and choices. Indeed, the simulator shows that, if you reduce the growth of both populations and economies to the lowest level the programmers considered possible, the planet still warms almost 3.5 degrees Celsius.

But now reset the variables and go into the submenus for coal, gas, and oil, and perform a little experiment: stop building any new infrastructure for these fossil fuels beginning in 2025 and, all of a sudden, you’re at a world that warms only 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s why it is such good news, for instance, that New York State last week quashed plans for the Williams natural-gas pipeline across the New York City harbor: if you keep building stuff like this now, it locks in emissions for decades to come, busting our carbon budget. It’s why the climate movement has fought so hard against pipelines and fracking wells and L.N.G. terminals: with ever-cheaper renewable power, when you manage to stop such projects, sun and wind have a chance at filling the vacuum.

And, once you’ve made this basic course change, you can go back to work on other steps that the simulator can model. Stipulate an all-out effort at making buildings and transport more efficient, and cut way back on deforestation—and now you’re at about 2.5 degrees. Figure out some ways to “highly reduce” methane emissions from oil and gas wells, cows, and other sources, and suddenly you’re nearing the two-degree mark.

None of these things are easy, of course. In fact, all of them are very hard. But stopping new infrastructure is possible—it’s basically a battle with the fossil-fuel industry, which, as I’ve been pointing out, is losing financial muscle with each passing week. Last week, according to the Financial Times, in a fascinating interview with Bernard Looney, the C.E.O. of BP, “Looney noted that as crude prices have plunged, renewable energy projects had been able to attract funding, suggesting the pandemic has weakened the investment case for oil. ‘It’s the model that is increasingly respected and admired by investors as being resilient and having a different risk profile,’ he said.”

Passing the Mic

Bernadette Demientieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which has been coördinating that First Nation’s fight against plans for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She’s spent much of the past few years visiting with representatives of major banks and asking them not to finance the project, because it would damage the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and, as a consequence, her community’s way of life. And she’s been successful: among the six biggest American banks, only Bank of America has not agreed to the Gwich’ins’ request.

Could you tell us what the Arctic Refuge is like this time of year—has spring begun to reach the far north?

I would be honored to share the true beauty of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. This place right now would be melting and summer on the rise. Animals coming out and appearing all over. Creeks and lakes starting to form beautifully. It’s like nature slowly waking up.

Bank after bank has agreed not to fund drilling in the Arctic these past months. Do you think that will make a difference?

We have been visiting these banks for the past two years, and it was really heartfelt to see that many of them made a commitment to withdraw from going into the Arctic Refuge. Our human rights are being violated, and we will not sit by quietly and allow this to happen.

What do you think people don’t understand about this fight—what message would you most like to get across?

Many people are not aware that this is not just about protecting our polar bears but this is about the indigenous voices being ignored, this is about a whole identity, about a people’s entire way of life being destroyed for profit. We have a spiritual and cultural connection to the Porcupine caribou herd, and we will stand strong in unity for the protection of their calving grounds and the Gwich’in way of life. We are rich in our culture, we are rich in our way of life. Look out across this country and understand this is a prime example of why we continue to fight for protection of these places. These lands, these waters, these animals are our survival.

Many of us will be O.K., because we are survivors, but we don’t only think about ourselves or our people. We think about our human race and all the many American people who deserve a chance at survival. We stand up for our future generations, the ones that do not have a voice yet, and we carry on “in a good way” the love, kindness, and strength of our ancestors.

Climate School

The climate campaigner Jamie Henn—an old colleague—wrote a provocative piece for Common Dreams last week arguing that environmentalists need to do a better job of describing the future world they’d like to build. If Fox News says that the Green New Deal is all about taking away hamburgers, Green New Dealers should respond with a vision of a “cleaner, healthier, freer, fun-er new world. A world where we aren’t choking on smog and exhaust. Where you don’t have to worry about gas leaks or expensive water bills. Where there’s no oil to change, no gaskets to replace, maybe even no car to worry about, because you’ve got a sexy electric bike and free, all-electric transit is just a block or two away.”

For Future Tense (a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University), David Zipper argues persuasively that cities have a short window—perhaps measured in weeks—to break the reflexive habit of driving cars. The nightmare is that subway-leery commuters will soon be driving. “A recent Vanderbilt study found that Bay Area residents could soon spend an additional 20 to 80 minutes per day stuck in congestion due to a shift away from mass transit. Evidence from China, which is attempting to return to life as usual following extended coronavirus lockdowns, is ominous: In early April, cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou already had higher levels of rush hour congestion than a year ago.” The dream looks like—well, like these survey results from the U.K., which found that six out of ten Brits want their government to prioritize health and well-being over economic growth even after the pandemic subsides. Doubtless that’s why London continues to amaze with its plans to turn the city center into a zone for bikes, buses, scooters, and pedestrians. In a sign of the times, the staid Financial Times offers a guide for first-time bike buyers.

Obviously not important in the long run, but a fascinating glimpse into the vagaries of short-term climate forecasting: nasa’s climate chief, Gavin Schmidt, said last month that there is a sixty-per-cent chance that 2020 will be the hottest year on record. Last week, his predecessor, the legendary climate scientist James Hansen, said, “Don’t bet on it.” He forecasts a La Niña chilling of the Pacific, which might keep temperatures below record levels until 2022. Hansen’s excellent Web site also contains chapters from his forthcoming book, “Sophie’s Planet.”

The clean-energy advocate and investor Ramez Naam has been making forecasts of the price of solar power since 2011. Though he was more bullish than almost anyone else about the decline in costs, he now says that he wasn’t bullish enough. “Solar has plunged in price faster than anyone—including me—predicted. And modeling of that price decline leads me to forecast that solar will continue to drop in price faster than I’ve previously expected, and will ultimately reach prices lower than virtually anyone expects. Prices that are, by any stretch of the measure, insanely, world-changingly cheap.” In fact, he predicts that, per kilowatt-hour, “average prices in sunny parts of the world” will be “down to a penny or two by 2030 or 2035.” This would mean that “building new solar would routinely be cheaper than operating already built fossil fuel plants, even in the world of ultra-cheap natural gas we live in now.”

Scoreboard

An own goal: writing last week about the threat of a union leader to violate social-distancing rules in an effort to stop anti-gas ordinances, I managed to omit the link to the story in the Los Angeles Times that first detailed the nastiness. I’m kind of glad for the omission, though, because it allows me to point out the fine work of the reporter in question, Sammy Roth. You can read more of his thinking regularly in the L.A. Times newsletter “Boiling Point”; it’s especially valuable for keeping track of California, which has the world’s fifth-largest economy and is en route to being among its cleanest.

Following the lead of Canada, state authorities in North Dakota said last week that they would use some of their covid-19 relief money to employ oil workers to plug abandoned oil wells. That’s good and bad: good that these people will get to do this necessary work; bad that the taxpayers are footing the bill, instead of the energy companies that made big profits doing the original damage.

The tiny Pacific island of Niue has been designated the world’s first “dark sky” country by astronomers. Niue’s willingness to replace outdoor lighting with low-glow L.E.D.s won’t just preserve the splendor of the Milky Way; it will also make life a lot easier for wildlife. “In areas brightly lit at night, turtles can’t find the ocean, birds become disoriented while flying, and clownfish don’t hatch,” an Australian researcher told the Web site Mongabay. “It can also affect the mass-spawning event of many reef-building corals.”

In a potentially huge breakthrough for energy storage, a Minnesota utility supplier has signed a contract for a pilot project with a Bill Gates-backed battery manufacturer, Form Energy, which says that its product can provide a hundred and fifty hours of full-power-capacity backup, a big improvement on the current standard of about four hours.

The University of California finished the job of divesting its hundred-and-twenty-six- billion-dollar portfolio from fossil fuels. As the L.A. Times reported, the chief investment officer said that “his team is convinced that investments in fossil fuels pose an ‘unacceptable financial risk,’ particularly with ‘geopolitical tensions and likely, a bumpy and slow global financial recovery in a post-pandemic world.’ ”

And at the JPMorgan Chase annual shareholder’s meeting, campaigners came breathtakingly close—49.6 per cent of the vote—to forcing the company, according to Reuters, to report on “whether and how it will align its business lending” with the temperature targets set in the Paris climate accords. As Reuters noted, “traditionally shareholder measures that receive more than 30% of support usually push companies to make at least some changes to assuage investor concerns.” Certainly the heat is on: two members of the Rockefeller family, which has historic ties to the bank, joined New York City comptroller Scott Stringer in writing an op-ed in the Daily News on the day of the vote, saying that the company “needs to move away from financing the dirty fossil fuels of the past and toward the big, strategic clean energy investments of the future.”

Warming Up

Blake Mills is a virtuoso guitarist and a producer who’s worked with, among others, Alabama Shakes. His new single, “Summer All Over,” was released in time for Earth Day. It’s a reminder that a “summer song” on an overheating planet doesn’t necessarily mean a good-times anthem.

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