Internal Documents Expose Fossil Fuel Industry's Decades of Deception on Climate Change
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse created a stir recently when he speculated that fossil fuel companies may be violating federal racketeering law by colluding to defraud the public about the threat posed by carbon pollution.
Whitehouse likened their actions to those of the tobacco companies that conspired to manufacture doubt about the link between smoking and disease when they were all too aware of it. In 2006, a federal district court ruled that the tobacco industry's deceptive campaign to maximize its profits by hoodwinking the public amounted to a racketeering enterprise.
Whitehouse may be among the first to suggest that the fossil fuel industry is flouting the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), but he's not the first to point out the parallels between the tobacco industry's fraudulent campaign and the fossil fuel industry's efforts to quash government action on climate change.
Back in 2007, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report revealed that ExxonMobil—then the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company—had spent $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on a network of more than 40 front groups to try to discredit mainstream climate science. Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, meanwhile, were outed by a 2010 Greenpeace report revealing they spent significantly more than ExxonMobil between 2005 and 2008 on virtually the same groups. Many of those groups and the scientists affiliated with them had previously shilled for the tobacco industry.
Despite their outsized role, ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers are just a part of a much bigger story, according to a new UCS report, "The Climate Deception Dossiers." After spending nearly a year reviewing a wide range of internal corporate and trade association documents pried loose by leaks, lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, UCS researchers have compiled a broader tale of deceit.
Drawing on evidence culled from 85 documents, the report reveals that ExxonMobil and five other top carbon polluters—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, coal giant Peabody Energy and Royal Dutch Shell—were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote contrarian arguments they knew to be wrong. Taken together, the documents show that these six companies—in conjunction with the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry's premier trade association, and a host of front groups—have known for at least two decades that their products are harmful and have intentionally deceived the public about the climate change threat.
Exxon Recognized Carbon Emissions Problem 34 Years Ago
The collected documents reveal the fossil fuel industry campaign has relied on a variety of deceptive practices, including creating phony grassroots groups, secretly funding purportedly independent scientists, and even forging letters from nonprofit advocacy groups to lobby members of Congress.
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ExxonMobil's duplicity is perhaps the most remarkable. Internal documents and public statements stretching back decades show that ExxonMobil's corporate forerunners Exxon and Mobil, which merged in 1999, acknowledged the threat posed by global warming as far back as the early 1980s.
UCS discovered one eye-opening document just last week, unfortunately too late to include in its new report. It's an email former Exxon and Mobil chemical engineer Leonard S. Bernstein sent last October in reply to a request for comment by an Ohio University ethics professor about how corporations often fail to account for "externalities" such as pollution. Bernstein stated in his email that Exxon was factoring climate change into its resource development decisions more than 30 years ago.
"Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna [natural] gas field off Indonesia." Bernstein wrote. "... [P]rojections were that if Natuna were developed and its [carbon dioxide] vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about one percent of projected global CO2 emissions." The company ultimately abandoned the project.
"In the 1980s," Bernstein explained, "Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue."
It may have taken Mobil seven more years to wake up to the reality of global warming, but it was much more vocal than Exxon about it. In November 1988, five months after NASA scientist James Hansen rang the alarm bell before Congress, Mobil President Richard F. Tucker cited the "greenhouse effect" in a list of serious environmental challenges during a speech at an American Institute of Chemical Engineers national conference.
"Our strategy must be to reduce pollution before it is ever generated—to prevent problems at the source," he said. "That will involve working at the edge of scientific knowledge and developing new technology at every scale on the engineering spectrum ... Prevention on a global scale may even require a dramatic reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels—and a shift toward solar, hydrogen and safe nuclear power. It may be possible—just possible—that the energy industry will transform itself so completely that observers will declare it a new industry."
Fossil Fuel Companies Disregard Their Own Scientists
Tucker's warning went unheeded even by his own company. A year later, in 1989, 50 U.S. corporations and trade groups created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to discredit climate science. Its founding members included API, British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Texaco and ... Mobil.
Until it disbanded in 2002, GCC conducted a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming. One of its fact sheets for legislators and journalists, for example, claimed "the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood" and emphasized that "scientists differ" on the issue.
An internal 1995 GCC primer included in the UCS report, however, indicates that the coalition's own scientific and technical experts were telling its members that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming.
"The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established," the 17-page document stated, "and cannot be denied." The primer's lead author was none other than Leonard S. Bernstein, who at the time was Mobil's manager for corporate environmental, health and safety issues. After retiring from Mobil in 1999, Bernstein was a lead chapter author for U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports in 2001 and 2007.
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One draft version of the primer even addressed—and dismissed—major arguments made by climate change contrarians. "The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes," the draft stated, "but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change." That section wasn't included in the primer's final version.
Bernstein referenced his role with the coalition in his October 2014 email. "I was involved in GCC for a while," he wrote, "unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality."
Exxon definitely was not interested in scientific reality. In 1998—a year before it merged with Mobil—the company embarked on its contrarian network spending spree and placed one of its lobbyists, Arthur G. "Randy" Randol III, on API's newly created Global Climate Science Communications Team. The team's goal was to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement signed by 192 countries—but not the U.S.—to meet binding carbon emissions reduction targets.
The new UCS report includes a leaked API communications team campaign memo—co-written by Randol and representatives from API, Chevron, Southern Company and a handful of fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks—which lays out a plan largely based on the tobacco industry's deception strategy famously encapsulated in an internal memo that asserted "doubt is our product." Echoing that sentiment, the API memo stated: "Victory will be achieved when: average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science."
Case Study: Covertly Underwriting a Contrarian Scientist
What makes the secret API memo so revealing is how closely its tactics were implemented in the case of Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, an aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Last February, internal documents made public for the first time revealed that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests have been secretly funding Soon's scientific work for years.
This revelation didn't come as a total surprise. The 2007 UCS report on the ExxonMobil contrarian network identified Soon as one of a dozen scientists affiliated with more than 40 ExxonMobil-funded think tanks that then constituted the backbone of the climate change-denier PR machine. Soon produced work for at least five of these ExxonMobil-backed groups, including the Heartland Institute.
But the latest cache of documents, obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center through an FOIA request, lays bare a wealth of detail that was not available before, partly because a number of Soon's contracts with the astrophysics lab dictated that the names of his benefactors remain confidential.
It turns out that Soon received more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry over the last decade and failed to disclose that conflict of interest in most of the scientific papers that money underwrote. Southern Company contributed more than $400,000, ExxonMobil donated $335,000, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation kicked in $230,000 and API gave more than $100,000. Except for Charles Koch's foundation, all of the funders participated in API's Global Climate Science Communications Team, and one of the co-authors of the team's 1998 memo, Southern Company research specialist Robert Gehri, personally negotiated a $60,000 grant to the astrophysics lab in 2008 to pay for Soon's research.
So what did API, ExxonMobil, Koch and Southern Company get for their money?
Soon's papers and congressional testimony, which he called "deliverables" in his correspondence with his funders, conclude that solar activity is the main cause of global warming and carbon emissions have had little or no impact. Scientifically indefensible, no doubt. But they have served their purpose. Soon's discredited findings are routinely cited by members of Congress—notably Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—to argue that climate science is a hoax.
Holding the Companies Accountable
The tobacco industry successfully stalled meaningful regulations for decades. Using virtually the same strategy and tactics, the fossil fuel industry thus far has been able to do the same, at least when it comes to federal legislation.
As the new UCS report notes, recent research has documented that 90 state- and privately owned corporations alone have produced and marketed the fossil fuels and cement responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world's industrial carbon emissions over the past two and a half centuries. Of these, 50 are investor-owned coal, oil and natural gas companies, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody and Shell. Even more startling, nearly 30 percent of all industrial emissions can be traced to just 20 investor- and state-owned companies.
Scientists have been warning about the looming threat for decades, but governments have only begun to take climate change seriously. Meanwhile, the rate of carbon emissions has increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released into the atmosphere since 1988, after major fossil fuel companies knew about the harm their products are doing to the climate.
So what is to be done?
There are a number of potential ways to hold large industrial carbon polluters accountable. It remains to be seen whether Sen. Whitehouse's call for prosecuting them under RICO holds promise. But shareholder engagement, divestment campaigns, consumer boycotts and state court litigation all can play an important role in forcing them to curb their emissions, end their disinformation campaigns and even pay the cost of climate damages, preparedness and mitigation. The most effective tactics remain a subject for debate. But, as the picture of the fossil fuel companies' efforts to deceive the public becomes clearer, it is high time these companies take responsibility for their actions and the damage they've done.
Watch Union of Concerned Scientists' video explaining how internal industry documents reveal decades of disinformation:
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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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By Jeff Goodell
The Earth's climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call "a Goldilocks climate" — not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34 billion tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2 C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth's temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different — quite literally, a different world than humans have ever lived in before.
How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region (both nations have nuclear weapons)? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living in mobile homes on the Gulf Coast? The truth is, no one knows for sure. We are in uncharted terrain. "We're now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future," said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. "We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected."
By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. And it's hard not to feel that after 30 years of dithering and denial and hypocrisy, the fight to save the climate has finally begun in earnest. In the 2020 election, nearly 70 percent of Biden's voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs.
"I think in Obama's mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy," says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. "Biden's team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity."
Of course, there have been hopeful moments before: the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when the nations of the world first came together to limit CO2 emissions; the success of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006; the election of Obama in 2008 ("This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination that year); the Paris Agreement in 2015, when China finally engaged in climate talks. But all of these moments, in the end, led to nothing. If you look at the only metric that really matters — a graph of the percentage of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere — it has been on a long, steady upward climb. More CO2 equals more heat. To put it bluntly, all our scientific knowledge, all the political speeches, all the activism and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.
But hope rises again. The economic winds are lifting Biden's sails: The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted by 90 percent or so over the past decade, and in many parts of the world it's the cheapest way to generate electricity. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dinosaurs are tottering: Big Coal is collapsing in real time and may disappear from American life in the next decade or so. ExxonMobil lost $22 billion last year and in August was delisted from the S&P 500. GM, long the staunch fossil-fuel loyalist of the U.S. auto industry, has pledged to go all-electric by 2035.
Globally, the signs of change are equally inspiring. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, by far the world's largest carbon polluter in terms of raw tonnage (on a per capita basis, the U.S. and several other countries pollute far more), has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestlé, and Pepsi, have committed to reduce carbon pollution consistent with the United Nations' 1.5 C target, which scientists have determined is the threshold of dangerous climate change. Many of these same companies are now calling on the Biden administration to cut overall U.S. carbon pollution by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a goal consistent with the 1.5 C target.
Big Money is also waking up to the risks and benefits of climate action. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which manages $7.8 trillion in assets, challenged companies "to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy." In her confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called climate change "an existential threat" and promised to create a team to examine the risks and integrate them into financial policy-making.
Still, these are only baby steps in a very long journey. And the clock is ticking. "When it comes to the climate crisis," says futurist Alex Steffen, "speed is everything." Every molecule of carbon we dump into the atmosphere is another molecule of carbon that will warm the climate for centuries to come, and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reshape the world we live in. The changes we are making are not reversible. If we magically stopped all carbon pollution tomorrow, the Earth's temperature would level off, but warm seas would continue melting the ice sheets and seas would keep rising for decades, if not centuries (last time carbon levels were as high as they are today, sea levels were 70 feet higher). Ocean acidification, caused by high CO2 levels, is already dissolving coral reefs and is having a major impact on the ocean food chain. Even after emissions stop, it will take the ocean thousands of years to recover.
Cutting carbon fast would slow these changes and reduce the risk of other climate catastrophes. But despite the world's newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough. Even the goal of holding future warming to 2 C, which is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and considered the outer limits of a Goldilocks climate for much of the planet, is nearly out of reach. As a recent paper in Nature pointed out: "On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 C of warming is only five percent." If all countries meet the commitment they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, the paper argued, the probability of remaining below 2 C of warming rises to 26 percent ("As if a 26 percent chance was good," Swedish climate wunderkind Greta Thunberg pointed out in a tweet).
The great danger is not climate denial. The great danger is climate delay. Instead of pushing for changes tomorrow, world leaders and CEOs like to make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2050. And then in 2050, they will make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2070. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls this the "empty radicalism" of long-term goals.
What's needed is action now. As climate envoy John Kerry put it at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February: "We have to now phase out coal five times faster than we have been. We have to increase tree cover five times faster than we have been. We have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster than we are. We have to transition to [electric vehicles] 22 times faster."
As an example of the seriousness of Biden's near-term ambition, he has proposed transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which means goodbye natural-gas plants, goodbye coal plants, and hello electric cars and battery storage. It's an astonishingly ambitious proposal, one that would require a remaking of the digital backbone of America at a breakneck speed. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if Biden is serious about getting it done, it will require retooling permitting laws and the environmental-review process that often stalls big infrastructure projects.
Demanding action now will also require shutting down the international financing schemes that support fossil fuels. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim to be doing their part in making carbon reductions at home, while at the same time they are financing 70,000 megawatts of coal power in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In addition, state-run oil companies in places like China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are on course to spend more than $400 billion over the next decade to expand oil infrastructure and exploration.
The goal of net-zero emissions is also problematic. "Net zero" is not the same thing as zero. It means that carbon pollution is either eliminated or offset by other processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests or machines that capture CO2. Some of these offsets and technologies are more legit than others, opening the door to scams that claim to eliminate more carbon than they do.
In a way, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic has created a historic opportunity for the Biden administration. As one White House adviser tells me, "If you are going to pump billions of dollars into the economy, why not use those dollars to help us transition away from fossil fuels?" This is one of the central ideas behind Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which is now being negotiated in Congress. The bill includes a wide variety of climate-related initiatives, shaped around the twin pillars of Biden-era policy: clean-energy jobs and climate justice.
Already the pushback is fierce, especially in states that have benefited from the fracking boom. "The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas," says Leah Stokes, author of Short Circuiting Policy, an analysis of how special interests have derailed clean-energy policy for 30 years. Shortly after Biden issued his first round of executive orders aimed at the climate crisis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in the middle of the gas fields "to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil-and-gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C." In Florida, two bills were introduced that would preempt local governments from implementing plans to lower carbon pollution. In California and New York, residents are fighting transmission lines for offshore wind farms. Republicans, along with stalwart fossil-fuel allies like the Heritage Foundation, recently convened a private retreat in Utah to plot ways to "reclaim the narrative" on climate, while Republican Senators like Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn continue to recycle tired old rants about how the Paris Agreement is destroying American jobs.
None of this is surprising. And the fight will only get bigger and more ruthless as the clean-energy transition accelerates. Fossil fuels are emblematic of a culture, a way of life, a political hierarchy, and an empire of wealth that will not go quietly into the night.
Even among climate activists and progressives, there is wide disagreement about the best path forward. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who supports Biden's climate goals, sees natural gas as indispensable. "You can't turn off natural gas in our society, at least in the Northeast of the United States at this time," Lamb tells me. "You just can't do it." Lamb advocates investments in expensive and unproven technology like carbon capture that could extend the life of fossil fuels. Then there are the eternal battles over nuclear power as a source of clean energy, which Lamb also supports. Others, like UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, remain skeptical: "If low-cost, reliable, entirely safe nuclear can prove itself out, this is wonderful. . . . But there's a lot of big ifs."
More important, the fight for a stable climate is increasingly inseparable from a fight for justice and equity. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who was on a task force that helped shape Biden's climate policy during his campaign, grew up and works in Lowndes County, Alabama. "I see a lot of poverty here," Flowers says. "And I see a lot of people who suffer from the impacts of climate change — whether it is heat, or disease, or poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. You can't separate one from the other. They put sewage lagoons next to the houses of poor people, not rich people. They put oil pipelines through poor neighborhoods, not rich ones."
Internationally, rich nations of the world pledged to "mobilize" $100 billion by 2020 through the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But only about $10 billion materialized. The U.S. was among the worst actors: Of the $3 billion President Obama promised, he funded only $1 billion before Trump canceled further payments (Biden has promised to make good on the commitment, and then some).
Whatever happens with Biden's climate and energy initiatives, we're living in a new world now. The faster we cut carbon, the more manageable the changes will be. But change is coming. The biggest fights of the future are less likely to be about natural gas and nuclear power than about sea walls and migration policies. "Adaptation is not sexy," says Alice Hill, who was an adviser to the Obama administration. "But it is inevitable." As climate impacts escalate, dangerous techno-fixes, such as solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet, will likely become more tempting and more divisive, perhaps further diluting the will to quickly cut carbon pollution.
For more than 30 years now, scientists and politicians have been aware that our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels could push us out of the Goldilocks zone and force humans to live in a world we have never inhabited before. As Biden's push for climate action gets real, we will learn a lot about how serious human beings are about living on this planet, and how far the powerful and privileged are willing to go to reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. If political leaders don't take the climate crisis seriously now, with all they know, with all they have been through already, will they ever? "Climate advocates keep saying, 'This is it, this is it, this is it,'" warns Podesta. "But this really is it. If we don't amp up and accelerate the energy transformation in this decade, we're goners — really goners."
This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Julia Conley
Ecologists and environmental advocates on Thursday called for swift action to reintroduce species into the wild as scientists at the University of Cambridge in England found that 97% of the planet's land area no longer qualifies as ecologically intact.
"Conservation is simply not enough anymore," said financier and activist Ben Goldsmith. "We need restoration."
Just 3% of world’s ecosystems now remain intact. Conservation is simply not enough anymore. We need restoration. https://t.co/iWcLxAoLWn— Ben Goldsmith (@Ben Goldsmith)1618487636.0
The authors of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, expressed alarm at their findings, which showed that of the 3% of fully intact land, much lies in northern areas which weren't rich in biodiversity to begin with, such as boreal forests in Canada or tundra in Greenland.
The amount of ecologically intact land "was much lower than we were expecting," Dr. Andrew Plumptre, head of the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat at Cambridge and lead author of the study, told Science News.
"Going in, I'd guessed that it would be 8 to 10%," he added. "It just shows how huge an impact we've had."
The researchers examined whether natural habitats had retained the number of species which were present in the year 1500—the standard used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to assess species' extinction.
Earlier research using satellite imagery led to estimates that 20 to 40% of the planet had retained its natural biodiversity. But areas including dense forests, which can appear intact from above, were found to be missing numerous species.
The researchers linked the loss of unscathed land to hunting and other destructive human activities, disease, and the impact of invasive species. According to The Guardian, the study may underestimate the intact regions because it does not "take account of the impacts of the climate crisis, which is changing the ranges of species."
Only 11% of the land still considered intact was found to be in officially protected areas, but much of the intact regions "coincide with territories managed by indigenous communities, who have played a vital role in maintaining the ecological integrity of these areas," the researchers wrote.
In light of the study, advocates including author George Monbiot and ecologist Alan Watson Featherstone called for "rewilding," or species reintroduction in affected areas.
Rewilding isn't a luxury. It's essential to protect the world's living systems. https://t.co/WbqrTU3VTR— George Monbiot (@George Monbiot)1618465601.0
If anyone wonders why we have a UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration & rewilding has to become a major focus for huma… https://t.co/7V8IewrqLC— Alan Watson Featherstone (@Alan Watson Featherstone)1618468497.0
The reintroduction of up to five species could help restore 20% of the planet to previous levels of biodiversity, the study found.
"Examples would include reintroducing forest elephants in areas of the Congo Basin where they have been extirpated, or reintroducing some of the large ungulates that have been lost from much of Africa's woodlands and savannas because of overhunting (e.g., buffalo, giraffe, zebras etc.), as long as overhunting has ceased," the researchers wrote.
Previously, the rewilding of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. led to a resurgence in the park's ecosystem.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.