Bill McKibben: It's Not Just What Exxon Did, It's What It's Doing
Here's the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth 8 and 16th largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. And that's just the beginning. As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it's doing now—entirely legally—is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.
Back in the fall, you might have heard something about how Exxon had covered up what it knew early on about climate change. Maybe you even thought to yourself: that doesn't surprise me. But it should have. Even as someone who has spent his life engaged in the bottomless pit of greed that is global warming, the news and its meaning came as a shock: we could have avoided, it turns out, the last quarter century of pointless climate debate.
As a start, investigations by the Pulitzer-Prize winning Inside Climate News, the Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism School revealed in extraordinary detail that Exxon's top officials had known everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. Even earlier, actually. Here's what senior company scientist James Black told Exxon's management committee in 1977: "In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels." To determine if this was so, the company outfitted an oil tanker with carbon dioxide sensors to measure concentrations of the gas over the ocean and then funded elaborate computer models to help predict what temperatures would do in the future.
The results of all that work were unequivocal. By 1982, in an internal “corporate primer," Exxon's leaders were told that, despite lingering unknowns, dealing with climate change "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion." Unless that happened, the primer said, citing independent experts, "there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered ... Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible." But that document, “given wide circulation" within Exxon, was also stamped “Not to be distributed externally."
So here's what happened. Exxon used its knowledge of climate change to plan its own future. The company, for instance, leased large tracts of the Arctic for oil exploration, territory where, as a company scientist pointed out in 1990, “potential global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs." Not only that but, “from the North Sea to the Canadian Arctic," Exxon and its affiliates set about “raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from increasing coastal erosion and designing helipads, pipelines and roads in a warming and buckling Arctic." In other words, the company started climate-proofing its facilities to head off a future its own scientists knew was inevitable.
But in public? There, Exxon didn't own up to any of this. In fact, it did precisely the opposite. In the 1990s, it started to put money and muscle into obscuring the science around climate change. It funded think tanks that spread climate denial and even recruited lobbying talent from the tobacco industry. It also followed the tobacco playbook when it came to the defense of cigarettes by highlighting “uncertainty" about the science of global warming. And it spent lavishly to back political candidates who were ready to downplay global warming.
Its CEO, Lee Raymond, even traveled to China in 1997 and urged government leaders there to go full steam ahead in developing a fossil fuel economy. The globe was cooling, not warming, he insisted, while his engineers were raising drilling platforms to compensate for rising seas. "It is highly unlikely," he said, "that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now." Which wasn't just wrong, but completely and overwhelmingly wrong—as wrong as a man could be.
Sins of Omission
In fact, Exxon's deceit—its ability to discourage regulations for 20 years—may turn out to be absolutely crucial in the planet's geological history. It's in those two decades that greenhouse gas emissions soared, as did global temperatures until, in the twenty-first century, “hottest year ever recorded" has become a tired cliché. And here's the bottom line: had Exxon told the truth about what it knew back in 1990, we might not have wasted a quarter of a century in a phony debate about the science of climate change, nor would anyone have accused Exxon of being “alarmist." We would simply have gotten to work.
But Exxon didn't tell the truth. A Yale study published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that money from Exxon and the Koch Brothers played a key role in polarizing the climate debate in this country.
The company's sins—of omission and commission—may even turn out to be criminal. Whether the company “lied to the public" is the question that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman decided to investigate last fall in a case that could make him the great lawman of our era if his investigation doesn't languish. There are various consumer fraud statutes that Exxon might have violated and it might have failed to disclose relevant information to investors, which is the main kind of lying that's illegal in this country of ours. Now, Schneiderman's got backup from California Attorney General Kamala Harrisand maybe—if activists continue to apply pressure—from the Department of Justice as well, though its highly publicized unwillingness to go after the big banks does not inspire confidence.
Here's the thing: all that was bad back then, but Exxon and many of its Big Energy peers are behaving at least as badly now when the pace of warming is accelerating. And it's all legal—dangerous, stupid and immoral, but legal.
On the face of things, Exxon has, in fact, changed a little in recent years.
For one thing, it's stopped denying climate change, at least in a modest way. Rex Tillerson, Raymond's successor as CEO, stopped telling world leaders that the planet was cooling. Speaking in 2012 at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, “I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It'll have a warming impact."
Of course, he immediately went on to say that its impact was uncertain indeed, hard to estimate and in any event entirely manageable. His language was striking. “We will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around—we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions."
Add to that gem of a comment this one: the real problem, he insisted, was that “we have a society that by and large is illiterate in these areas, science, math and engineering, what we do is a mystery to them and they find it scary. And because of that, it creates easy opportunities for opponents of development, activist organizations, to manufacture fear."
Right. This was in 2012, within months of floods across Asia that displaced tens of millions and during the hottest summer ever recorded in the U.S., when much of our grain crop failed. Oh yeah and just before Hurricane Sandy.
He's continued the same kind of belligerent rhetoric throughout his tenure. At last year's ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, for instance, he said that if the world had to deal with “inclement weather," which “may or may not be induced by climate change," we should employ unspecified “new technologies." Mankind, he explained, “has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity."
In other words, we're no longer talking about outright denial, just a denial that much really needs to be done. And even when the company has proposed doing something, its proposals have been strikingly ethereal. Exxon's PR team, for instance, has discussed supporting a price on carbon, which is only what economists left, right and center have been recommending since the 1980s. But the minimal price they recommend—somewhere in the range of $40 to $60 a ton—wouldn't do much to slow down their business. After all, they insist that all their reserves are still recoverable in the context of such a price increase, which would serve mainly to make life harder for the already terminal coal industry.
But say you think it's a great idea to put a price on carbon—which, in fact, it is, since every signal helps sway investment decisions. In that case, Exxon's done its best to make sure that what they pretend to support in theory will never happen in practice.
Consider, for instance, their political contributions. The website Dirty Energy Money, organized by Oil Change International, makes it easy to track who gave what to whom. If you look at all of Exxon's political contributions from 1999 to the present, a huge majority of their political harem of politicians have signed the famous Taxpayer Protection Pledge from Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform that binds them to vote against any new taxes. Norquist himself wrote Congress in late January that “a carbon tax is a VAT or Value Added Tax on training wheels. Any carbon tax would inevitably be spread out over wider and wider parts of the economy until we had a European Value Added Tax." As he told a reporter last year, “I don't see the path to getting a lot of Republican votes" for a carbon tax and since he's been called “the most powerful man in American politics," that seems like a good bet.
The only Democratic senator in Exxon's top 60 list was former Louisiana solon Mary Landrieu, who made a great virtue in her last race of the fact that she was “the key vote" in blocking carbon pricing in Congress. Bill Cassidy, the man who defeated her, is also an Exxon favorite and lost no time in co-sponsoring a bill opposing any carbon taxes. In other words, you could really call Exxon's supposed concessions on climate change a Shell game. Except it's Exxon.
The Never-Ending Big Dig
Even that's not the deepest problem.
The deepest problem is Exxon's business plan. The company spends huge amounts of money searching for new hydrocarbons. Given the recent plunge in oil prices, its capital spending and exploration budget was indeed cut by 12 percent in 2015 to $34 billion and another 25 percent in 2016 to $23.2 billion. In 2015, that meant Exxon was spending $63 million a day “as it continues to bring new projects on line." They are still spending a cool $1.57 billion a year looking for new sources of hydrocarbons—$4 million a day, every day.
As Exxon looks ahead, despite the current bargain basement price of oil, it still boasts of expansion plans in the Gulf of Mexico, eastern Canada, Indonesia, Australia, the Russian far east, Angola and Nigeria. “The strength of our global organization allows us to explore across all geological and geographical environments, using industry-leading technology and capabilities." And its willingness to get in bed with just about any regime out there makes it even easier. Somewhere in his trophy case, for instance, Rex Tillerson has an Order of Friendship medal from one Vladimir Putin. All it took was a joint energy venture estimated to be worth $500 billion.
But, you say, that's what oil companies do, go find new oil, right? Unfortunately, that's precisely what we can't have them doing any more. About a decade ago, scientists first began figuring out a “carbon budget" for the planet—an estimate for how much more carbon we could burn before we completely overheated the Earth. There are potentially many thousands of gigatons of carbon that could be extracted from the planet if we keep exploring. The fossil fuel industry has already identified at least 5,000 gigatons of carbon that it has told regulators, shareholders and banks it plans to extract. However, we can only burn about another 900 gigatons of carbon before we disastrously overheat the planet. On our current trajectory, we'd burn through that “budget" in about a couple of decades. The carbon we've burned has already raised the planet's temperature a degree Celsius and on our present course we'll burn enough to take us past two degrees in less than 20 years.
At this point, in fact, no climate scientist thinks that even a two-degree rise in temperature is a safe target, since one degree is already melting the ice caps. (Indeed, new data released this month shows that, if we hit the two-degree mark, we'll be living with drastically raised sea levels for, oh, twice as long as human civilization has existed to date.) That's why in November world leaders in Paris agreed to try to limit the planet's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or just under three degrees Fahrenheit. If you wanted to meet that target, however, you would need to be done burning fossil fuels by perhaps 2020, which is in technical terms just about now.
That's why it's wildly irresponsible for a company to be leading the world in oil exploration when, as scientists have carefully explained, we already have access to four or five times as much carbon in the Earth as we can safely burn. We have it, as it were, on the shelf. So why would we go looking for more? Scientists have even done us the useful service of identifying precisely the kinds of fossil fuels we should never dig up and—what do you know—an awful lot of them are on Exxon's future wish list, including the tar sands of Canada, a particularly carbon-filthy, environmentally destructive fuel to produce and burn.
Even Exxon's one attempt to profit from stanching global warming has started to come apart. Several years ago, the company began a calculated pivot in the direction of natural gas, which produces less carbon than oil when burned. In 2009, Exxon acquired XTO Energy, a company that had mastered the art of extracting gas from shale via hydraulic fracturing. By now, Exxon has become America's leading fracker and a pioneer in natural gas markets around the world. The trouble with fracked natural gas—other than what Tillerson once called “farmer Joe's lit his faucet on fire"—is this: in recent years, it's become clear that the process of fracking for gas releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere and methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth has recently established, burning natural gas to produce electricity probably warms the planet faster than burning coal or crude oil.
Exxon's insistence on finding and producing ever more fossil fuels certainly benefited its shareholders for a time, even if it cost the Earth dearly. Five of the 10 largest annual profits ever reported by any company belonged to Exxon in these years. Even the financial argument is now, however, weakening. Over the last five years, Exxon has lagged behind many of its competitors as well as the broader market and a big reason, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), is its heavy investment in particularly expensive, hard-to-recover oil and gas.
In 2007, as CTI reported, Canadian tar sands and similar “heavy oil" deposits accounted for 7.5 percent of Exxon's proven reserves. By 2013, that number had risen to 17 percent. A smart business strategy for the company, according to CTI, would involve shrinking its exploration budget, concentrating on the oil fields it has access to that can still be pumped profitably at low prices and using the cash flow to buy back shares or otherwise reward investors.
That would, however, mean exchanging Exxon's Texan-style big-is-good approach for something far more modest. And since we're speaking about what was the biggest company on the planet for a significant part of the twentieth century, Exxon seems to be set on continuing down that bigger-is-better path. They're betting that the price of oil will rise in the reasonably near future, that alternative energy won't develop fast enough and that the world won't aggressively tackle climate change. And the company will keep trying to cover those bets by aggressively backing politicians capable of ensuring that nothing happens.
Can Exxon Be Pressured?
Next to that fierce stance on the planet's future, the mild requests of activists for the last 25 years seem ... well, next to pointless. At the 2015 ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, for instance, religious shareholder activists asked for the umpteenth time that the company at least make public its plans for managing climate risks. Even BP, Shell and Statoil had agreed to that much. Instead, Exxon's management campaigned against the resolution and it got only 9.6 percent of shareholder votes, a tally so low it can't even be brought up again for another three years. By which time we'll have burned through ... oh, never mind.
What we need from Exxon is what they'll never give: a pledge to keep most of their reserves underground, an end to new exploration and a promise to stay away from the political system. Don't hold your breath.
But if Exxon seems hopelessly set in its ways, revulsion is growing. The investigations by the New York and California attorneys general mean that the company will have to turn over lots of documents. If journalists could find out as much as they did about Exxon's deceit in public archives, think what someone with subpoena power might accomplish. Many other jurisdictions could jump in, too.
At the Paris climate talks in December, a panel of law professors led a well-attended session on the different legal theories that courts around the world might apply to the company's deceptive behavior. When that begins to happen, count on one thing: the spotlight won't shine exclusively on Exxon. As with the tobacco companies in the decades when they were covering up the dangers of cigarettes, there's a good chance that the Big Energy companies were in this together through their trade associations and other front groups. In fact, just before Christmas, Inside Climate News published some revealing new documents about the role that Texaco, Shell and other majors played in an American Petroleum Institute study of climate change back in the early 1980s. A trial would be a transformative event—a reckoning for the crime of the millennium.
But while we're waiting for the various investigations to play out, there's lots of organizing going at the state and local level when it comes to Exxon, climate change and fossil fuels—everything from politely asking more states to join the legal process to politely shutting down gas stations for a few hours to pointing out to New York and California that they might not want to hold millions of dollars of stock in a company they're investigating. It may even be starting to work.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, for instance, singled Exxon out in his state of the state address last month. He called on the legislature to divest the state of its holdings in the company because of its deceptions. “This is a page right out of Big Tobacco," he said, “which for decades denied the health risks of their product as they were killing people. Owning ExxonMobil stock is not a business Vermont should be in."
The question is: Why on God's-not-so-green-Earth-anymore would anyone want to be Exxon's partner?
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Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.
The report, from the People's Collective for Environmental Justice (PCEJ) and students from the University of Redlands, shared with The Guardian, is meant to serve as an "advocacy tool to help raise awareness related to the warehouse industry's impacts on Southern California's air pollution issues," Earthjustice noted.
California's Inland Empire, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the largest "warehousing hubs" in the world in just the past few decades, according to Grist. Since establishing its first warehouse in the region in 2012, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, where 40,000 people now work in Amazon warehouses, picking, packing, sorting and unloading, as well as driving trucks and operating aircrafts, The New York Times Magazine reported.
"The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant," The New York Times Magazine added.
In just the last year, Amazon has tripled its delivery hubs in the region due to the demand for online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis. But despite the economic boom, heavy air pollution mainly from trucks going in and out of the warehouses infects nearby communities, the new research showed, according to The Guardian.
The research found, for example, that the populations living within a half-mile of the warehouses are 85 percent people of color, while California's overall population is 64 percent people of color, The Guardian reported. The research also found that communities with the most Amazon warehouses nearby have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.
"Amazon has boomed in 2020 and tripled the amount of money it's making, and it is happening at a cost to the folks who live in these communities," Ivette Torres, a PCEJ environmental science researcher and analyst, who helped put the research together, told The Guardian.
The research also demonstrated that the top 10 communities with the most warehouses in the region also experience pollution from other facilities, like gas plants and oil refineries, Earthjustice wrote in a statement.
"The Inland Empire, probably more than any region in the United States, has disproportionately [borne] the brunt of the environmental and economic impact of goods movement, and Amazon is driving that now in the Inland Empire," Jake Wilson, a California State University, Long Beach, professor of sociology, told Grist.
Last year, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority ratified a decision to allow an air cargo facility development at the airport, allowing Amazon to operate more flights out of the region, Grist reported.
Among the local residents to oppose the decision was Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, a resident of San Bernadino in Southern California since 2005. "This whole region has been taken over by warehouses," Heredia told Grist, and commented on the "horrible" air quality in the city on most days. "It's really reaching that apex point where you can't avoid the warehouses, you can't avoid the trucks," he added.
Advocates who published the research are pushing on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local air pollution regulatory agency, to move forward with the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, which would require new and existing warehouses to take action to reduce emissions locally each year, The Guardian reported. Some solutions include moving towards zero-emissions trucks and mitigation fees.
"Last year, we saw some of the worst air quality, with wildfires adding to it, and the trucks were still in and out of our communities. So this is a huge change that we need right now, and that we actually needed yesterday," Torres concluded, according to The Guardian.
Scientists at the University of Purdue have developed the whitest and coolest paint on record.
Painting buildings white to help cool down cities has long been touted as a climate solution. However, the white paints currently on the market reflect only 80 to 90 percent of sunlight and cannot actually cool a roof to below air temperature, The Guardian reported. However, this new paint can.
"Our paint can help fight against global warming by helping to cool the Earth – that's the cool point," University of Purdue Professor Xiulin Ruan told The Guardian. "Producing the whitest white means the paint can reflect the maximum amount of sunlight back to space."
The new paint, introduced in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces on Thursday, can reflect up to 98.1 percent of sunlight and cool surfaces by 4.5 degrees Celsius. This means it could be an effective replacement for air conditioning.
"If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That's more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses," Ruan said in a University of Purdue press release.
The new paint improves upon a previous paint by the same research team that reflected 95.5 percent of sunlight. Researchers say it is likely the closest counterpart to the blackest black, "Vantablack," which can absorb as much as 99.9 percent of visible light. The new paint is so white for two main reasons: It uses a high concentration of a reflective chemical compound called barium sulfate, and the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes, meaning they scatter different parts of the light spectrum.
White paint is already being used to combat the climate crisis. New York has painted more than 10 million square feet of rooftops white, BBC News reported. Project Drawdown calculated that white or plant-covered roofs could sequester between 0.6 and 1.1 gigatons of carbon between 2020 and 2050. The researchers hope their paint will enhance these efforts.
"We did a very rough calculation," Ruan told BBC News. "And we estimate we would only need to paint one percent of the Earth's surface with this paint — perhaps an area where no people live that is covered in rocks — and that could help fight the climate change trend."
The research team has filed a patent for the paint and hope it will be on the market within two years, according to The Guardian. However, Andrew Parnell, who develops sustainable coatings at the University of Sheffield, said it would be important to calculate the emissions produced from mining barium sulphate and compare those with the emissions saved from using the paint instead of air conditioning.
"The principle is very exciting and the science [in the new study] is good. But I think there might be logistical problems that are not trivial," Parnell told The Guardian. "How many million tons [of barium sulphate] would you need?"
Parnell thought green roofs, or roofs on which plants grow, might prove to be a more ecologically friendly alternative.
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Less than three years after California governor Jerry Brown said the state would launch "our own damn satellite" to track pollution in the face of the Trump administration's climate denial, California, NASA, and a constellation of private companies, nonprofits, and foundations are teaming up to do just that.
Under the umbrella of the newly-formed group Carbon Mapper, two satellites are on track to launch in 2023. The satellites will target, among other pollution, methane emissions from oil and gas and agriculture operations that account for a disproportionate amount of pollution.
Between 2016 and 2018, using airplane-based instruments, scientists found 600 "super-emitters" (accounting for less than 0.5% of California's infrastructure) were to blame for more than one-third of the state's methane pollution. Now, the satellite-based systems will be able to perform similar monitoring, continuously and globally, and be able to attribute pollution to its source with previously impossible precision.
"These sort of methane emissions are kind of like invisible wildfires across the landscape," Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona research scientist Riley Duren said. "No one can see them or smell them, and yet they're incredibly damaging, not just to the local environment, but more importantly, globally."
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