Tag Archives: Climate action

Putin’s war shows autocracies and fossil fuels go hand in hand. Here’s how to tackle both

Democracies are making more progress than autocracies when it comes to climate action. But divestment campaigns can put pressure on the most recalcitrant of political leaders
Autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images

The Guardian, by Bill McKibben, Mon 11 Apr 2022

At first glance, last autumn’s Glasgow climate summit looked a lot like its 25 predecessors. It had:

  • A conference hall the size of an aircraft carrier stuffed with displays from problematic parties (the Saudis, for example, with a giant pavilion saluting their efforts at promoting a “circular carbon economy agenda”).
  • Squadrons of delegates rushing constantly to mysterious sessions (“Showcasing achievements of TBTTP and Protected Areas Initiative of GoP”) while actual negotiations took place in a few back rooms.
  • Earnest protesters with excellent signs (“The wrong Amazon is burning”).

But as I wandered the halls and the streets outside, it struck me again and again that a good deal had changed since the last big climate confab in Paris in 2015 – and not just because carbon levels and the temperature had risen ever higher.

The biggest shift was in the political climate. Over those few years the world seemed to have swerved sharply away from democracy and toward autocracy – and in the process dramatically limited our ability to fight the climate crisis. Oligarchs of many kinds had grabbed power and were using it to uphold the status quo; there was a Potemkin quality to the whole gathering, as if everyone was reciting a script that no longer reflected the actual politics of the planet.

Now that we’ve watched Russia launch an oil-fired invasion of Ukraine, it’s a little easier to see this trend in high relief – but Putin is far from the only case. Consider the examples.

Brazil, in 2015 at Paris, had been led by Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ party, which had for the most part worked to limit deforestation in the Amazon. In some ways the country could claim to have done more than any other on climate damage, simply by slowing the cutting. But in 2021 Jair Bolsonaro was in charge, at the head of a government that empowered every big-time cattle rancher and mahogany poacher in the country. If people cared about the climate, he said, they could eat less and “poop every other day”. And if they cared about democracy, they could … go to jail. “Only God can take me from the presidency,” he explained ahead of this year’s elections.

A climate activist holds a sign depicting Jair Bolsonaro with the slogan ‘Exterminator of the Future’. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Or India, which may turn out to be the most pivotal nation given the projected increases in its energy use – and which had refused its equivalent of Greta Thunberg even a visa to attend the meeting. (At least Disha Ravi was no longer in jail).

Or Russia (about which more in a minute) or China – a decade ago we could still, albeit with some hazard and some care, hold climate protests and demonstrations in Beijing. Don’t try that now.

Or, of course, the US, whose deep democratic deficits have long haunted climate negotiations. The reason we have a system of voluntary pledges, not a binding global agreement, is that the world finally figured out there would never be 66 votes in the US Senate for a real treaty.

Joe Biden had expected to arrive at the talks with the Build Back Better bill in his back pocket, slap it down on the table, and start a bidding war with the Chinese – but the other Joe, Manchin of West Virginia, the biggest single recipient of fossil fuel cash in DC, made sure that didn’t happen. Instead Biden showed up empty-handed and the talks fizzled.

And so we were left contemplating a world whose people badly want action on climate change, but whose systems aren’t delivering it. In 2021 the UN Development Programme conducted a remarkable poll, across the planet – they questioned people through video-game networks to reach humans less likely to answer traditional surveys. Even amid the Covid pandemic, 64% of them described climate change as a “global emergency”, and that by decisive margins they wanted “broad climate policies beyond the current state of play”. As the UNDP director, Achim Steiner, summarized, “the results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level”.

The irony is that some environmentalists have occasionally yearned for less democracy, not more. Surely if we just had strongmen in power everywhere they could just make the hard decisions and put us on the right path – we wouldn’t have to mess with the constant vagaries of elections and lobbying and influence.

But this is wrong for at least one moral reason – strongmen capable of acting instantly on the climate crisis are also capable of acting instantly on any number of other things, as the people of Xinjiang and Tibet would testify were they allowed to talk. It’s also wrong for a number of practical ones.

Those practical problems begin with the fact that autocrats have their own vested interests to please – Modi campaigned for his role atop the world’s largest democracy on the corporate jet of Adani, the largest coal company in the subcontinent. Don’t assume for a minute that there’s not a fossil fuel lobby in China; right now it’s busy telling Xi that economic growth depends on more coal.

And beyond that, autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. The crucial thing about oil and gas is that it is concentrated in a few spots around the world, and hence the people who live on top of or otherwise control those spots end up with huge amounts of unwarranted and unaccountable power.

Boris Johnson was just off in Saudi Arabia trying to round up some hydrocarbons – the day after the king beheaded 81 folks he didn’t like. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to the Saudi royal family if they did not possess oil? No. Nor would the Koch brothers have been able to dominate American politics on the basis of their ideas –when David Koch ran for the White House on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 he got almost no votes. So he and his brother Charles decided to use their winnings as America’s largest oil and gas barons to buy the GOP, and the rest is (dysfunctional) political history.

The most striking example of this phenomenon, it hardly need be said, is Vladimir Putin, a man whose power rests almost entirely on the production of stuff that you can burn. If I wandered through my house, it would be no problem to find electronics from China, textiles from India, all manner of goods from the EU – but there’s nothing anywhere that would say “made in Russia”. Sixty per cent of the export earnings that equipped his army came from oil and gas, and all the political clout that has cowed western Europe for decades came from his fingers on the gas spigot. He and his hideous war are the product of fossil fuel, and his fossil fuel interests have done much to corrupt the rest of the world.

Vladimir Putin and Alexei Miller, CEO of Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, attend a ceremony to mark the launch of the Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok natural gas pipeline in 2011. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

It’s worth remembering that Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, wears the Order of Friendship, personally pinned on his lapel by Putin in thanks for the vast investments Tillerson’s firm (that would be Exxon) had made in the Arctic – a region opened to their exploitation by the fact that it had, um, melted. And these guys stick together: it’s entirely unsurprising that when Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and Amazon quit Russia last month, Koch Industries announced that it was staying put. The family business began, after all, by building refineries for Stalin.

Another way of saying this is that hydrocarbons by their nature tend towards the support of despotism – they’re highly dense in energy and hence very valuable; geography and geology means they can be controlled with relative ease. There’s one pipeline, one oil terminal.

Whereas sun and wind are, in these terms, much closer to democratic: they’re available everywhere, diffuse instead of concentrated. I can’t have an oilwell in my backyard because, as with almost all backyards, there is no oil there. Even if there was an oilwell, I would have to sell what I pumped to some refiner, and since I’m American, that would likely be a Koch enterprise. But I can (and do) have a solar panel on my roof; my wife and I rule our own tiny oligarchy, insulated from the market forces the Putins and the Kochs can unleash and exploit. The cost of energy delivered by the sun has not risen this year, and it will not rise next year.

As a general rule of thumb, those territories with the healthiest, least-captive-to-vested-interest democracies are making the most progress on climate change. Look around the world at Iceland or Costa Rica, around Europe at Finland or Spain, around the US at California or New York. So part of the job for climate campaigners is to work for functioning democratic states, where people’s demands for a working future will be prioritized over vested interest, ideology and personal fiefdoms.

But given the time constraints that physics impose – the need for rapid action everywhere – that can’t be the whole strategy. In fact, activists have arguably been a little too focused on politics as a source of change, and paid not quite enough attention to the other power center in our civilization: money.

If we could somehow persuade or force the world’s financial giants to change, that would yield quick progress as well. Maybe quicker, since speed is more a hallmark of stock exchanges than parliaments.

And here the news is a little better. Take my country as an example. Political power has come to rest in the reddest, most corrupt parts of America. The senators representing a relative handful of people in sparsely populated western states are able to tie up our political life, and those senators are almost all on the payroll of big oil. But money has collected in the blue parts of the country – Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economy.

That’s one reason some of us have worked so hard on campaigns like fossil fuel divestment – we won big victories with New York’s pension funds and with California’s vast university system, and so were able to put real pressure on big oil. Now we’re doing the same with the huge banks that are the industry’s financial lifeline. We’re well aware that we may never win over Montana or Mississippi, so we better have some solutions that don’t depend on doing so.

The same thing’s true globally. We may not be able to advocate in Beijing or Moscow or, increasingly, in Delhi. So, at least for these purposes, it’s useful that the biggest pots of money remain in Manhattan, in London, in Frankfurt, in Tokyo. These are places we still can make some noise.

And they are places where there’s some real chance of that noise being heard. Governments tend to favor people who’ve already made their fortune, industries that are already ascendant: that’s who comes with blocs of employees who vote, and that’s who can afford the bribes. But investors are all about who’s going to make money next. That’s why Tesla is worth far more than General Motors in the stock market, if not in the halls of Congress.

Moreover, if we can persuade the world of money to act, it’s capable of doing so quickly. Should, say, Chase Bank, currently the biggest lender on earth to fossil fuel, announce this year that it was quickly phasing out that support, the news would ripple out across stock markets in the matter of hours. That’s why some of us have felt it worthwhile to mount increasingly larger campaigns against these financial institutions, and to head off to jail from their lobbies.

The world of money is at least as unbalanced and unfair as the world of political power – but in ways that may make it a little easier for climate advocates to make progress.

Putin’s grotesque war might be where some of these strands come together. It highlights the ways that fossil fuel builds autocracy, and the power that control of scarce supplies gives to autocrats. It’s also shown us the power of financial systems to put pressure on the most recalcitrant political leaders: Russia is being systematically and effectively punished by bankers and corporations, though as my Ukrainian colleague Svitlana Romanko and I pointed out recently, they could be doing far more. The shock of the war may also be strengthening the resolve and unity of the world’s remaining democracies and perhaps – one can hope – diminishing the attraction of would-be despots like Donald Trump.

But we’ve got years, not decades, to get the climate crisis under some kind of control. We won’t get more moments like this. The brave people of Ukraine may be fighting for more than they can know.

  • This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story

Important policies that cities can adopt NOW to help fight climate change

[Editor: Here’s a challenge for cities large and small.  Check out the climate change policies proposed by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.  Especially interesting: the link to How Building Performance Standards Are Addressing Climate Change.  – R.S.] 
Traffic during rush hour along I-5 in Seattle. CREDIT: KUOW PHOTO/MEGAN FARMER

Seattle mayor proposes new climate measures to tackle pollution from traffic and buildings

KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, By John Ryan, November 2, 2021

At the global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced policies she says will take a big bite out of Seattle’s climate-harming emissions from buildings and cars.

“We are really working toward urgent action on climate change,” Durkan said.

She proposes requiring large buildings to clean up their carbon acts, starting in five years.

Her executive order seeks to make existing commercial and multifamily buildings convert to clean electric power and eliminate the use of fossil fuels no later than 2050. Initial emission reductions would begin by 2026.

Seattle has mandated climate-friendliness in new construction but to date has done much less to tackle the bigger problem: the impacts of existing buildings.

The proposed policy would cut building-based emissions in the city 39% by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050, according to Durkan.

caption: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks from the global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1, 2021.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks from the global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1, 2021. CREDIT: SCREENSHOT FROM NOV. 1 CITY OF SEATTLE PRESS CONFERENCE

Monday’s executive order directs city staff to engage with community groups and draft legislation for performance standards for large buildings by next July, six months after Durkan’s term has ended. Then the Seattle City Council would have its say.

Of course, public process is often where proposals go to die in Seattle, like one Durkan touted in 2018 for downtown tolling, which she dropped in 2020.

Other proposals announced by Durkan Monday include:

  • Creation of an urban pedestrian-only zone by summer 2022.
  • A $1 million pilot to replace diesel trucks with electric ones in the heavily polluted Duwamish Valley. City officials say the $1 million pilot is expected to subsidize the purchase of 15-20 electric trucks.
  • A ban on fossil fuel use in city-owned buildings by 2035.
  • A new design of the Burke-Gilman Trail’s 1.4-mile “missing link,” which has been stalled by opposition from some Ballard businesses for decades.
  • Free transit for Seattle middle schoolers. High schoolers got free transit in 2020. “We know that kids, when they ride transit, become transit users for the rest of their life,” Durkan said.

“This provides safe, reliable, and affordable trips for families,” Alex Hudson with the Transportation Choice Coalition said at the mayor’s press conference. “Transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as well as the air pollutants that affect public health and increased rates of asthma and other public health emergencies.”

“The city of Seattle is leading America in all of our efforts,” Durkan said, echoing a claim Seattle mayors have made for nearly 20 years.

Following similar bans in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and other California cities in 2019 and 2020, Seattle banned most natural gas use in new construction of large buildings in February 2021.

State law prohibits Washington cities from banning fossil fuel use or imposing tighter energy codes on residential buildings less than four stories tall.

“Three cities (Washington D.C., New York, and St. Louis) and Washington state have already passed legislation creating building performance standards,” trade publication FacilitiesNet.com reports.

Seattle’s Green New Deal law requires the city to aim for zero climate pollution by 2030, not 2050, as Durkan’s policies do.

“I thank [the Seattle City] Council for what they passed in terms of some of the targets they want to meet, but targets mean nothing unless we have a cohesive plan,” Durkan said.

“Zero emissions by 2030 is the proper goal, and what the City committed to in 2019,” climate activist Jess Wallach with 350 Seattle said in an email.

“Actually leading the nation would look like doing more than taking four years to make an underwhelming promise with no real targets or accountability,” Wallach said.

Durkan’s proposed 2022 city budget devotes much less money to curbing fossil fuels than activists have called for. It includes $1.7 million to convert 125 low-income households from oil heat to electric heat pumps. The “solidarity budget” pushed by progressive activist groups calls for $85 million annually over three years, enough to convert all oil-heated low-income homes in the city to clean energy.

Both candidates for Seattle mayor, Lorena González and Bruce Harrell, one of whom will replace Durkan in January, have signed a climate pledge to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 58% by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050.

NY Times: Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris

Repost from the New York Times – Science
[Editor:  See also the Times’ Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris.  – RS]

What Does a Climate Deal Mean for the World?

Times staff, Dec. 12, 2015

A group of 195 nations reached a landmark climate agreement on Saturday. Here is what it means for the planet, business, politics and other areas.

An event at the United States’ pavilion during the Paris climate conference, known as COP21. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press
The Planet

The planet is under threat from human emissions, and the Paris climate deal is, at best, a first step toward fixing the problem. Ice sheets are starting to melt, coastlines are flooding from rising seas, and some types of extreme weather are growing worse. Yet some of the consequences of an overheated planet might be avoided, or at least slowed, if the climate deal succeeds in reducing emissions. At the least, by requiring regular reviews, the deal lays a foundation for stronger action in the future. – JUSTIN GILLIS


Christiana Figueres, the United Nations climate chief, left; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister; and President François Hollande of France, on Saturday after the Paris climate accord was adopted. Credit Christophe Petit Tesson/European Pressphoto Agency
Global Politics

Strange bedfellows emerged during the Paris negotiations, with industrial powerhouses such as the European Union joining with Pacific island nations and former adversaries, like China and the United States, swapping brinksmanship for bonds over joint action to cut fossil fuel emissions. The pact could leave more geopolitical shifts in its wake. It could further move the energy balance of power away from the developing world toward the industrialized countries, boost the economy in technology economies like the United States and Japan as they develop solutions for the generation and distribution of renewable energy, and create economic stars out of relatively poor countries with an abundance of sun and wind for renewable energy. On the other hand, major oil producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia, already weakened by the slide in the price of oil, could shed some power. – MELISSA EDDY


President Obama Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
American Politics

The Paris accord is a triumph for President Obama and Secretary of
State John Kerry, who both lobbied hard for it, but it has outraged
many Republicans who are skeptical of the extent of human-caused
climate change and believe the deal favors environmental ideology over economic reality. The environment has not typically played a major role in voters’ choices, and the issue will most likely be overshadowed in the current election cycle by fears of terrorism, though the drought in California and severe weather in many parts of the country have raised concerns for many Americans. The Republican-controlled Congress can do little to stop the deal, which is not considered a treaty under United States law, though Congress would need to sign off on any new money to help other countries adapt to climate change — an important aspect of the American commitment to the accord. – SEWELL CHAN


A worker inspected solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, China. Credit Carlos Barria/Reuters
Business

The ambitious targets included in Saturday’s deal for limiting the rise in global temperatures may help companies involved in renewable energy and energy efficiency by expanding their markets. Setting a high bar may also make the energy industry attractive for innovators and venture capitalists, increasing the chances of sweeping shifts in what has been a conservative business. The agreement may make life difficult for some of the incumbent companies like electric utilities and coal producers, whose product emits high levels of carbon dioxide. – STANLEY REED


Environmental activists and supporters at a rally in Los Angeles last week called for action on climate change. Credit Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
American Citizens

The average American most likely will not feel an immediate effect from the Paris deal. There will be greater emphasis on more efficient electrical products, homes and vehicles. Jobs could be created through the construction of a new energy infrastructure, the maintenance of solar fields and the development of new transportation systems that move away from dependence on the gas pump, as Secretary of State John Kerry has said. Or, as Republicans warn, Americans could see a loss in jobs and American economic competitiveness, as developing economies with less stringent targets are allowed to grow at American’s expense. The deal’s intended long-term effect: avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change and leaving behind a healthier planet. – MELISSA EDDY

 

NRDC: Paris Climate Agreement Explained

Repost from the Natural Resources Defense Council

Paris Climate Agreement Explained

By Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Director of Programs with Emily Cousins, December 12, 2015
Credit: Shun Kambe

How we’ll deliver on the promise of ambitious climate action.
The global community signed an historic agreement today at the Paris climate talks to tackle the threat of climate change and accelerate the shift to clean energy around the world. This is a momentous breakthrough. Nearly 200 countries have pledged to reduce their climate change pollution, strengthen their climate commitments every five years, protect people living on the front lines of climate impacts, and help developing nations expand their clean energy economies.

Most important, this agreement sets ambitious goals. It calls for holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with a first step of keeping us at no more than 2 degrees of warming.

Reaching the 2-degree target is essential to prevent catastrophic climate impacts, but scientists say it still leaves us open to dangerous levels of rising seas, food insecurity, and extreme drought. It would make the Marshall Islands and other island nations uninhabitable and expose countless vulnerable communities to deadly harm. Keeping the temperature rise at no more than 1.5 degrees will sustain these communities and create a brighter, more stable future for our children and grandchildren.

This is an ambitious goal, but the past two weeks in Paris confirm it is achievable.

In Paris, an action agenda emerged out of a groundswell of climate action from cities, regions, businesses, investors, trade unions, and many others. Mayors and governors described what they are already doing to reduce carbon pollution and how they plan to do more. Multinational corporations said they are cutting carbon pollution across their operations. Financial institutions reported that renewable energy is a better investment than fossil fuels. Leaders from developing nations explained that clean energy is helping to generate economic growth and bring people out of poverty. And thousands of people from all over the world stood up for climate action. This groundswell has the backs of our national leaders in implementing ambitious climate policies. This is what climate leadership looks like.

The low-carbon transition is already underway. Now the Paris agreement calls on us to return home, pick up the pace, and go faster into the clean energy future. And it gives us the tools to hold our government leaders accountable.

In China, that means building on the country’s commitment to implement a cap-and-trade program and increase non-fossil-fuel energy sources to 20 percent of total energy by 2030. In India, that means leapfrogging over dirty fossil fuels and using clean, renewable, and efficient energy to power its growth. Meeting the country’s solar mission alone will create 1 million jobs. India has already vowed to increase renewable energy sixfold by 2020 and to set mandatory efficiency standards for buildings by 2017.

The United States can also build on existing progress. All 50 states are on track to implement the Clean Power Plan for limiting carbon pollution from power plants; they need to focus on doing this through energy efficiency and an increase in wind and solar. We can continue to improve fuel efficiency standards and move to a combination of electric vehicles and smarter growth in transportation. Next up, we’ll work on getting existing oil and gas facilities to reduce their methane emissions and on the phase-out of fossil fuel development on federal lands and in federal waters. And U.S. businesses should continue not only to improve their own energy efficiency but to band together to advocate for stronger clean energy and climate policies.

This work won’t be easy. The Paris agreement — and our obligation to future generations — demands that nations transform how we think about electricity, transportation, industry, methane from fracking, HFCs from air conditioning, agriculture, and other contributors to climate change. It also requires helping developing countries face the challenges of poverty alleviation, energy equity, and climate justice. And here in the United States, it entails going up against entrenched fossil fuel interests and those politicians who persist in denying climate change.

These are significant hurdles, but citizens, businesses, and political leaders around the globe have made it clear that we support strong climate action. This momentum will carry us forward. And the Paris climate agreement and action agenda will provide the road map.

Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said at an NRDC event last week, “When we speak about climate, we speak about humanity.” Our future is at stake here. For the human community to thrive, we need a stable climate. The Paris agreement and commitments will help ensure that our families, nations, and societies can flourish for generations to come.