In a bold new strategy unveiled on Monday in the Guardian, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—guardians of the planet's richest farmlands—has decided to combat the threat of global warming by forbidding the use of the words.
Under guidance from the agency's director of soil health, Bianca Moebius-Clune, a list of phrases to be avoided includes "climate change" and "climate change adaptation," to be replaced by "weather extremes" and "resilience to weather extremes."
Also blacklisted is the scary locution "reduce greenhouse gases"—and here, the agency's linguists have done an even better job of camouflage: the new and approved term is "increase nutrient use efficiency."
The effectiveness of this approach—based on the well-known principle that what you can't say won't hurt you—has previously been tested at the state level, making use of the "policy laboratories" provided by America's federalist system.
In 2012, for instance, the North Carolina general assembly voted to prevent communities from planning for sea level rise. Early analysis suggests this legislation has been ineffective: Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, for instance drove storm surge from the Atlantic ocean to historic levels along the Cape Fear river. Total damage from the storm was estimated at $4.8 billion.
Further south, the Florida government forbade its employees to use the term climate change in 2014—one government official, answering questions before the legislature, repeatedly used the phrase "the issue you mentioned earlier" in a successful effort to avoid using the taboo words.
It is true that the next year's "unprecedented" coral bleaching blamed on rising temperatures destroyed vast swaths of the state's reefs: from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale, a survey found that "about two-thirds were dead or reduced to less than half of their live tissue." Still, it's possible that they simply need to increase their nutrient use efficiency.
At the federal level, the new policy has yet to show clear-cut success, either. As the say-no-evil policy has rolled out in the early months of the Trump presidency, it coincided with the onset of a truly dramatic "flash drought" across much of the nation's wheat belt.
As the Farm Journal website pointed out earlier last week, "Crops in the Dakotas and Montana are baking on an anvil of severe drought and extreme heat, as bone-dry conditions force growers and ranchers to make difficult decisions regarding cattle, corn and wheat."
In typically negative journalistic fashion, the Farm Journal reported that "abandoned acres, fields with zero emergence, stunted crops, anemic yields, wheat rolled into hay, and early herd culls comprise a tapestry of disaster for many producers."
Which is why it's good news for the new strategy that the USDA has filled its vacant position of chief scientist with someone who knows the power of words.
In fact, Sam Clovis, the new chief scientist, is not actually a scientist of the kind that does science, or has degrees in science, but instead formerly served in the demanding task of rightwing radio host (where he pointed out that followers of former president Obama were "Maoists"). He has actually used the words "climate change" in the past, but only to dismiss it as "junk science."
Under his guidance the new policy should soon yield results, which is timely since recent research (carried out, it must be said, by scientists at MIT) showed that "climate change could deplete some U.S. water basins and dramatically reduce crop yields in some areas by 2050."
But probably not if we don't talk about it.
Bill McKibben is the founder of the climate campaign 350.org.
We're at one of those moments in the climate fight when things could go either way. In DC, of course, it's going badly: Trump and his crew are wrecking every federal effort to help reduce emissions—heck, they're even making sure we have no satellites to monitor the destruction.
But to every action, a reaction—and states and cities are beginning to step up to fill the void. This trend will increase: politicians read poll numbers, and those show that most Americans hate what's happening to the environment.
So politicians are speaking out. But at this point we need more than nice rhetoric, more than empty pledges to "live up to the Paris accords."
As I write in this week's Rolling Stone, we need real, measurable commitments. It's time, in particular, for politicians to:
1. Stop new fossil fuel infrastructure. If you're serious about Paris, that means realizing we're already overshooting the temperature targets we set there—there's literally no more room in the carbon budget for more pipelines, more frack fields, more coal ports. If France's new president can put an end to exploration for oil and gas, so can our leaders.
2. Commit to 100% renewables. Not to "more solar panels," but to powering our cities and states with sun and wind, and soon. Already cities from Atlanta to Salt Lake to San Diego have made the pledge; California's state senate has already passed such a bill. 100% is the most important number we've got.
3. Recognize that natural gas is as bad an enemy as coal or oil. This has been America's greatest climate mistake in recent years: we've driven down our carbon emissions by driving up the methane that natural gas production pours into the atmosphere, meaning we're making no progress. And all that cheap fracked gas is holding back the conversion to actual clean energy. It's got to stop.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Donald Trump is so spectacularly horrible that it's hard to look away (especially now that he's discovered bombs). But precisely because everyone's staring gape-mouthed in his direction, other world leaders are able to get away with almost anything. Don't believe me? Look one nation north, at Justin Trudeau.
Look all you want, in fact—he sure is cute, the planet's only sovereign leader who appears to have recently quit a boy band. And he's mastered so beautifully the politics of inclusion: compassionate to immigrants, insistent on including women at every level of government. Give him great credit where it's deserved: in lots of ways he's the anti-Trump, and it's no wonder Canadians swooned when he took over.
But when it comes to the defining issue of our day, climate change, he's a brother to the old orange guy in DC.
Not rhetorically. Trudeau says all the right things, over and over. He's got no Scott Pruitts in his cabinet. Everyone who works for him says the right things. Indeed, they specialize in getting others to say them too—it was Canadian diplomats, and the country's environment minister Catherine McKenna, who pushed at the Paris climate talks for a tougher-than-expected goal: holding the planet's rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But those words are meaningless if you keep digging up more carbon and selling it to people to burn, and that's exactly what Trudeau is doing. He's hard at work pushing for new pipelines through Canada and the U.S. to carry yet more oil out of Alberta's tar sands, which is one of the greatest climate disasters on the planet.
Last month, speaking at a Houston petroleum industry gathering, he got a standing ovation from the oilmen for saying "No country would find 173bn barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there."
That is to say Canada, which represents one-half of one percent of the planet's population, is claiming the right to sell the oil that will use up a third of the earth's remaining carbon budget. That is to say, Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he's not a stunning hypocrite.
Yes, 173bn barrels is indeed the estimate for recoverable oil in the tar sands. So let's do some math. If Canada digs up that oil and sells it to people to burn, it will produce, according to the math whizzes at Oil Change International, 30 percent of the carbon necessary to take us past the 1.5 degree target that Canada helped set in Paris.
This having-your-cake-and-burning-it-too is central to Canada's self-image/energy policy. McKenna, confronted by Canada's veteran environmentalist David Suzuki, said tartly, "We have an incredible climate change plan that includes putting a price on carbon pollution, also investing in clean innovation. But we also know we need to get our natural resources to market and we're doing both." Right.
But doing the second negates the first—in fact, it completely overwhelms it. If Canada is busy shipping carbon all over the world, it doesn't matter all that much if every Tim Horton's stopped selling donuts and started peddling solar panels instead.
Canada's got company in this scam. Australia's Malcolm Turnbull is supposed to be more sensitive than his predecessor, a Trump-like blowhard. When he signed on his nation to the Paris climate accords, he said, "It is clear the agreement was a watershed, a turning point and the adoption of a comprehensive strategy has galvanized the international community and spurred on global action."
Which is a fine thing to say, or would be, if your government wasn't backing plans for the largest coal mine on earth. That single mine, in a country of 20 million, will produce 362 percent of the annual carbon emissions that everyone in the Philippines produces in the course of a year. It is, obviously, mathematically and morally absurd.
Trump, of course, is working just as eagerly to please the fossil fuel industry—he's instructed the Bureau of Land Management to make permitting even easier for new oil and gas projects, for instance. And frackers won't even have to keep track of how much methane they're spewing under his new guidelines. And why should they? If you believe, as Trump apparently does, that global warming is a delusion, a hoax, a mirage, you might as well get out of the way.
Trump's insulting the planet, in other words. But at least he's not pretending otherwise.
We're going to be dealing with an onslaught of daily emergencies during the Donald Trump years. Already it's begun—if there's nothing going on (or in some cases when there is), our leader often begins the day with a tweet to stir the pot and suddenly we're debating whether burning the flag should lose you your citizenship.
These crises will get worse once he has power—from day to day we'll have to try and protect vulnerable immigrants or deal with the latest outrage from the white supremacist "alt-reich" or confront the latest self-dealing scandal in the upper reaches of the Tower. It will be a game (though not a fun one), for 48 months, of trying to preserve as many people and as much of the Constitution as possible.
Apollo 17's Blue Marble.NASA
And if we're very lucky, at the end of those four years, we might be able to go back to something that resembles normal life. Much damage will have been done in the meantime, but perhaps not irreparable damage. Obamacare will be gone, but something like it—maybe even something better—will be resurrectable. The suffering in the meantime will be real, but it won't make the problem harder to solve, assuming reason someday returns. That's, I guess, the good news: that someday normal life may resume.
But even that slight good news doesn't apply to the question of climate change. It's very likely that by the time Trump is done we'll have missed whatever opening still remains for slowing down the trajectory of global warming—we'll have crossed thresholds from which there's no return. In this case, the damage he's promising will be permanent, for two reasons.
The first is the most obvious: The adversary here is ultimately physics, which plays by its own rules. As we continue to heat the planet, we see that planet changing in ways that turn into feedback loops. If you make it hot enough to melt Arctic ice (and so far we've lost about half of our supply) then one of the side effects is removing a nice white mirror from the top of the planet. Instead of that mirror reflecting 80 percent of the sun's rays out to space, you've now got blue water that absorbs most of the incoming rays of the sun, amping up the heat. Oh, and as that water warms, the methane frozen in its depths eventually begins to melt—and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Even if, someday, we get a president back in power who's willing to try and turn down the coal, gas and oil burning, there will be nothing we can do about that melting methane. Some things are forever, or at least for geologic time.
There's another reason too, however, and that's that the international political mechanisms Trump wants to smash can't easily be assembled again, even with lots of future good will. It took immense diplomatic efforts to reach the Paris climate accords—25 years of negotiating with endless setbacks. The agreement itself is a jury-rigged kludge, but at least it provides a mechanism for action. It depends on each country voluntarily doing its part, though, and if the biggest historic source of the planet's carbon decides not to play, it's easy to guess that an awful lot of other leaders will decide that they'd just as soon give in to their fossil fuel interests too.
#TrumpWatch: 2,300 Scientists to Trump: We’re Watching You https://t.co/RGC7uH4jT2 @sciam @bbcscitech— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1480637107.0
So Trump is preparing to make a massive bet: a bet that the scientific consensus about climate change is wrong, and that the other 191 nations of the world are wrong as well. It's a bet based on literally nothing—when The New York Times asked him about global warming, he started mumbling about a physicist uncle of his who died in 1985. The job—and it may not be a possible job—is for the rest of us to figure out how to make the inevitable loss of this bet as painless as possible.
It demands fierce resistance to his silliness—clearly his people are going to kill Obama's Clean Power Plan, but perhaps they can be shamed into simply ignoring but not formally abrogating the Paris accords. This is work not just for activists, but for the elites that Trump actually listens to. Here's where we need what's left of the establishment to be weighing in: Fortune 500 executives, Wall Streeters—anyone who knows how stupid a bet this is.
But we also need to be working hard on other levels. The fossil fuel industry is celebrating Trump's election, and rightly so—but we can continue to make their lives at least a little difficult, through campaigns like fossil fuel divestment and through fighting every pipeline and every coal port. The federal battles will obviously be harder, and we may lose even victories like Keystone. But there are many levers of power, and the ones closer to home are often easier to pull.
We also have to work at state and local levels to support what we want. The last election, terrible as it was, showed that renewable energy is popular even in red states—Florida utilities lost their bid to sideline solar energy, for instance. The hope is that we can keep the buildout of sun and wind, which is beginning to acquire real momentum, on track; if so, costs will keep falling to the point where simple economics may overrule even Trumpish ideology.
And of course we have to keep communicating, all the time, about the crisis—using the constant stream of signals from the natural world to help people understand the folly of our stance. As I write this, the Smoky Mountain town of Gatlinburg is on fire, with big hotels turned to ash at the end of a devastating drought. Mother Nature will provide us an endless string of teachable moments, and some of them will break through—it's worth remembering that the Bush administration fell from favor as much because of Katrina as Iraq.
Unprecedented 'Super Fires' Devastate Smoky Mountains, 7 Dead https://t.co/QERQmgi004 @DollyParton @NWF @ClimateReality @sierraclub @NRDC— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1480602814.0
None of these efforts will prevent massive, and perhaps fatal, damage to the effort to constrain climate change. It's quite possible, as many scientists said the day after the election, that we've lost our best chance. But we don't know precisely how the physics will play out, and every ton of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere will help.
And amidst this long ongoing emergency, as I said at the beginning, we've got to help with all the daily crises. This winter may find climate activists spending as much time trying to block deportations as pipelines; we may have to live in a hot world, but we don't have to live in a jackbooted one, and the more community we can preserve, the more resilient our communities will be. It's hard not to despair—but then, it wasn't all that easy to be realistically hopeful about our climate even before Trump. This has always been a battle against great odds. They're just steeper now.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Moyers & Company.
So, the question everyone's asking me this week is: What now?
I don't have a great answer—the Trump saga will play out over time, and we'll be learning how to resist as we go along. But resist we will.
'Trump's Election Is a Disaster' by @StefanieSpear of @EcoWatch: https://t.co/jjnWs7tWQX #GameOverForClimate— Michael E. Mann (@Michael E. Mann)1478701114.0
I do know that the election last Tuesday made this Tuesday's demonstrations in support of Standing Rock even more important. We'll be gathering in nearly 200 cities worldwide to demand that the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Obama Administration, do their jobs and reject the Dakota Access Pipeline's final permit.
We don't know if we can make President Obama act—so far he's been noncommittal and vague. And we don't know if Trump would simply overturn his actions if he took them. But we do know that now more than ever we have to stand by our allies, and make our battles loud and public.
Trump's Personal Investments Ride on Completion of Dakota Access Pipeline https://t.co/p6Kzdh6kjY @wwwfoecouk @globalactplan— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478946627.0
The ugly side of the American psyche that's propelled Trump to the presidency is nothing new to Indigenous people. It's nothing new to people of color, to immigrants, to the vulnerable and the marginalized. This is a time for drawing together the many threads of our resistance—to fossil fuels, yes, but also and just as importantly to widespread hatred.
Solidarity with Indigenous leadership—in Standing Rock and beyond—is more important today, not less. The original inhabitants of this continent have been pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets, maced and attacked by guard dogs, all for peacefully standing up for their sovereign rights, and for the world around us. If we can't rally in support of them—well, that would be shameful.
Josh Fox: "I Have Never Seen Anything Like This" https://t.co/DT1XkVi9Sp @IENearth @billmckibben @350 @NaomiAKlein @joshfoxfilm @LeoDiCaprio— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478197513.0
I wish I had some magic words to make the gobsmacked feeling go away. But I can tell you from experience that taking action, joining with others to protest, heals some of the sting.
And throughout history, movements like ours have been the ones to create lasting change—not a single individual or president. That's the work we'll get back to, together.
The questions come after talks, on twitter, in the days' incoming tide of email—sometimes even in old-fashioned letters that arrive in envelopes. The most common one by far is also the simplest: What can I do? I bet I've been asked it 10,000 times by now and—like a climate scientist predicting the temperature—I'm pretty sure I'm erring on the low side.
"What can we do to make a difference?"The Thinker
It's the right question or almost: It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need. But my answer to it has changed over the years, as the science of global warming has shifted. I find, in fact, that I'm now saying almost the opposite of what I said three decades ago.
Then—when I was 27 and writing the first book on climate change—I was fairly self-obsessed (perhaps age appropriately). And it looked like we had some time: No climate scientist in the late 1980s thought that by 2016 we'd already be seeing massive Arctic ice melt. So it made sense for everyone to think about the changes they could make in their own lives that, over time, would add up to significant change. In The End of Nature, I described how my wife and I had tried to "prune and snip our desires," how instead of taking long vacation trips by car we rode our bikes in the road, how we grew more of our own food, how we "tried not to think about how much we'd like a baby."
Some of these changes we've maintained—we still ride our bikes, and I haven't been on a vacation in a very long time. Some we modified—thank God we decided to have a child, who turned out to be the joy of our life. And some I've abandoned: I've spent much of the last decade in frenetic travel, much of it on airplanes. That's because, over time, it became clear to me that there's a problem with the question "What can I do."
Bill McKibben: It's Time to Declare War on Climate Change via @EcoWatch https://t.co/gHkaGU8riw— Doug Marr (@Doug Marr)1471650007.0
The problem is the word "I." By ourselves, there's not much we can do. Yes, my roof is covered with solar panels and I drive a plug-in car that draws its power from those panels, and yes our hot water is heated by the sun, and yes we eat low on the food chain and close to home. I'm glad we do all those things, and I think everyone should do them, and I no longer try to fool myself that they will solve climate change.
Because the science has changed and with it our understanding of the necessary politics and economics of survival. Climate change is coming far faster than people anticipated even a couple of decades ago. 2016 is smashing the temperature records set in 2015 which smashed the records set in 2014; some of the world's largest physical features (giant coral reefs, vast river deltas) are starting to die off or disappear. Drought does damage daily; hundred-year floods come every other spring. In the last 18 months we've seen the highest wind speeds ever recorded in many of the world's ocean basins. In Basra Iraq—not far from the Garden of Eden—the temperature hit 129 Fahrenheit this summer, the highest reliably recorded temperature ever and right at the limit of human tolerance. July and August were not just the hottest months ever recorded, they were, according to most climatologists, the hottest months in the entire history of human civilization. The most common phrase I hear from scientists is "faster than anticipated." Sometime in the last few years we left behind the Holocene, the 10,000 year period of benign climatic stability that marked the rise of human civilization. We're in something new now—something new and frightening.
Bill McKibben Arrested + 56 Others in Ongoing Campaign Against Proposed Gas Storage at Seneca Lake https://t.co/VPteXtv15b via @ecowatch— Ecokare (@Ecokare)1457900848.0
Against all that, one's Prius is a gesture. A lovely gesture and one that everyone should emulate, but a gesture. Ditto riding the bike or eating vegan or whatever one's particular point of pride. North Americans are very used to thinking of themselves as individuals, but as individuals we are powerless to alter the trajectory of climate change in a meaningful manner. The five or ten percent of us who will be moved to really act (and that's all who ever act on any subject) can't cut the carbon in the atmosphere by more than five or ten percent by those actions.
No, the right question is "What can we do to make a difference?"
Because if individual action can't alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. Movements are what can put a price on carbon, force politicians to keep fossil fuel in the ground, demand subsidies so that solar panels go up on almost every roof, not just yours. Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number. Ask the Tea Party. Ask the civil rights movement.
The other side knows this, which is why it ridicules our movements at all times. When, for instance, 400,000 people march on New York City, I know that I will get a stream of ugly tweets and emails about how—saints preserve us—it takes gasoline to get to New York City. Indeed it does. If you live in a society that has dismantled its train system, then lots of people will need to drive and take the bus, and it will be the most useful gallons they burn in the course of the year. Because that's what pushes systems to change.
When brave people go to jail, cynics email me to ask how much gas the paddywagon requires. When brave people head out in kayaks to block the biggest drilling rigs on earth, I always know I'll be reading dozens of tweets from clever and deadened souls asking "don't you know the plastic for those kayaks require oil?" Yes, we know—and we've decided it's well worth it. We're not trying to be saints; we're trying to be effective.
We're not going to be forced into a monkish retreat from society—we need to engage this fight with all the tools of the moment. We're trying to change the world we live in and if we succeed then those who come after will have plenty of time to figure out other ways to inhabit it. Along the way those who have shifted their lives can provide inspiration, which is crucial. But they don't by themselves provide a solution. Naomi Klein once described visiting an "amazing" community farm in Brooklyn's Red Hook that had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy. "They were doing everything right, when it comes to climate," she said. "Growing organic, localizing their food system, sequestering carbon, not using fossil-fuel inputs—all the good stuff." Then came the storm. "They lost their entire fall harvest and they're pretty sure their soil is now contaminated, because the water that flooded them was so polluted. It's important to build local alternatives, we have to do it, but unless we are really going after the source of the problem"—namely, the fossil-fuel industry and its lock on Washington—"we are going to get inundated."
Bill McKibben: The Real Work Begins Nov. 9 - EcoWatch https://t.co/NewwnBK5bn @tcktcktck @OneWorld_News— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1470016506.0
Like Klein, I find that the people who have made some of those personal changes are usually also deeply involved in movement-building. Local farmers, even after a long day pulling weeds, find the energy to make it to the demonstration, often because they know their efforts out in the field aren't enough, even to guarantee a climate that will allow them to continue their efforts. No, the people calling environmentalists hypocrites for living in the real world are people who want no change at all. Their goal is simply to shame us and hence to quiet us. So we won't make them feel bad or disrupt the powers that be.
It won't work, unless we let it. Movements take care of their own: They provide bail money and they push each other's ideas around the web. They join forces across issues: BlackLivesMatter endorsing fossil fuel divestment, climate justice activists fighting deportations. They recognize that together we might just have enough strength to get it done. So when people ask me what can I do, I know say the same thing every time: "The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual. Join together—that's why we have movements like 350.org or Green for All, like BlackLivesMatter or Occupy. If there's not a fight where you live, find people to support, from Standing Rock to the Pacific islands. Job one is to organize and jobs two and three."
And if you have some time left over after that, then by all means make sure your lightbulbs are all LEDs and your kale comes from close to home.
Most Americans live far from the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline—they won't be able to visit the encampments on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where representatives of more than 200 tribes have come together in the most dramatic show of force of this environmental moment. They won't be able to participate in the daily nonviolent battle along the Missouri River against a $3.7 billion infrastructure project that threatens precious water and myriad sacred sites, not to mention the planet's unraveling climate.
TD Bank in Providence, Rhode Island, became the target of environmental and Native American rights activists.Steve Ahlquist / RIFuture.org
But most of us live near a bank.
Maybe there's a Citibank branch in your neighborhood. Or Wells Fargo or Bank of America or HSBC. Maybe you even keep your money in one—if so, you inadvertently helped pay for the guard dogs that attacked Native Americans as they tried to keep bulldozers from mowing down ancestral grave sites.
Maybe you have a retirement plan invested with Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley—if so, you helped buy the pepper spray that the company used to clear the way for its crews as they cleared the right of way straight to the Missouri River.
Perhaps you bank overseas. Credit Agricole? Deutsche Bank? Sumitomo? Royal Bank of Scotland? Barclays? Yeah, them too.
In fact, virtually every name in the financial pantheon has extended credit in some form to the Dakota Access Pipeline project, according to a remarkable dossier assembled by the organization Food & Water Watch. It shows a credit line of $10.25 billion (that's a b) for the companies directly involved in building the project—from 38 banks—a list of names that, the group adds, "might give you flashbacks to the 2007 financial crisis."
Sporadic protests have begun at some of the banks—activists occupied a Vancouver branch of TD Bank and across the continent in Philadelphia held a protest outside another of the giant's outlets. The same thing happened at a Citibank in downtown Chicago.
"It's unlikely that Citibank customers support poisoning indigenous peoples' water, desecrating sacred burial sites, or contributing to global climate change," said Gloria Fallon of Rising Tide Chicago. Which is true.
But banks love these kinds of deals precisely because they're so capital-intensive. (And because they're financially stacked in favor of the developers: Federal tax breaks worth more than $600 million helped make the balance sheet for Dakota Access Pipeline.)
The key Dakota Access Pipeline loan, said Rainforest Action Network's Amanda Starbuck, is still pending. It's a multibillion-dollar line of credit, but only $1.1 billion of the loan can be doled out until the company "resolves certain governmental permits." Citi, Mizuho, Bank of Tokyo MUFJ, and Mizuho Bank are leaders on that loan.
Many of these banks may be vulnerable to pressure. For one thing, they're eager to appear green: Bank of America, for instance, recently announced plans to make all its bank branches "carbon-neutral" by 2020. Which is nice—solar panels on the roof of the drive-thru tellers are better than no solar panels. But as Starbuck said, it's basically meaningless stacked up against Bank of America's lending portfolio, chock full of loans to develop "extreme fossil fuels, which are simply incompatible with a climate-stable world."
3 More Companies Commit to 100% Renewables https://t.co/KdSVcdB1ud @globalcompact @CSRwire— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1474407029.0
Put another way: They're going to be the vegan owners of a global chain of slaughterhouses.
Rainforest Action Network's numbers make clear just how mammoth this problem is for those of us fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground: In June, it reported that just 25 banks have invested "$784 billion in coal mining, coal power, 'extreme oil' and liquefied natural gas facilities between 2013 and 2015."
But there are success stories: Australian campaigners, led by indigenous groups downunder and working with campaigners across three continents, persuaded most of the world's banks to stop bankrolling plans for what would have been the world's largest coal mine and port, and in turn, that has helped bring the project to a standstill.
The pressure will increase after this week's release of a new report from Oil Change International, which makes clear that the oil fields, gas wells, and coal mines already in operation have enough carbon to carry us past the 2-degree target the world set in Paris a year ago (and to absolutely annihilate the stretch goal of 1.5 degrees).
That is to say: At this point, anyone who finances any fossil fuel infrastructure is attempting to make money on the guaranteed destruction of the planet.
So those Dakota Access Pipeline loans should come under new scrutiny—moral, as well as financial—since they assume that governments won't enforce their Paris promises. That's a gamble accountants might want to think twice about, especially after this week's news that the SEC was investigating Exxon for its refusal to write down the value of its reserves in light of the global accords.
Exxon in hot seat as SEC investigates oil giant over accounting for #climate change https://t.co/VWRJbgG5Xa via @EcoWatch— climatehawk1 (@climatehawk1)1474484469.0
And at least one bank is waking up. Amalgamated—the New York-based, labor-affiliated bank—announced jointly with Bank of America that it would make its branches carbon neutral. More significantly, it also announced it was divesting from the fossil fuel business.
"We need to be honest, we have a growing environmental crisis unfolding and Amalgamated Bank will no longer sit on the sideline," said Keith Mestrich, President and CEO of Amalgamated Bank. "As an industry that prides itself on innovation and bold action, we must all be leaders and take real action to change our course."
Put another way: They're vegans who will now be lending to tofu makers.
But it's probably sustained public pressure that will do the most good.
"Oil companies are always going to drill for oil and build pipelines—it's why they exist," Rainforest Action Network's Scott Parkin. "But the banks funding this pipeline have a choice as to where they put their money. Right now, Citibank, TD Bank and others have chosen to invest in a project that violates indigenous rights and destroys the climate."
Parkin points to the protests that have already sprung up at dozens of banks from DC to New Orleans to Tucson to Long Beach to the Bronx.
"We have the power to derail that loan with a different kind of currency," he said. "Putting our bodies on the line at any financial institution that says 'Dakota Access Pipeline, we're open for business.'"
And if anyone has any doubts that civil disobedience can be useful, remember how the amazing activists at Standing Rock forced the federal government to blink, pausing construction earlier this month. Their nonviolent leadership has inspired all of us—and it should have sent a shiver down the spine of a few bankers.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Yes! Magazine.
The Democratic and Republican conventions are history and the epochal 2016 election is now before us. My general theory is less talk and more action, so I hope you'll join me in taking this climate pledge, one that will power our efforts into the fall.
People's Climate March in New York City, Sept. 21, 2014.
But since I've got the microphone, maybe I'll say a few more words.
One is, Trump is truly bad news. His insistence that global warming is a Chinese manufactured hoax and his declaration that he will abrogate the Paris treaty mean that he's as much a nihilist on climate change as he is on anything else. In fact, no major party candidate since the start of the global warming era has been as bad on this issue, not even close. He's also terrifying for many other obvious reasons.
Second is, it was a little hard for me to watch Bernie's bittersweet speech to the Democratic convention. He's my Vermont neighbor (where 350.org was born) and he was my candidate and he talked about climate change as no presidential candidate ever has before, declaring forthrightly that it was the greatest problem the planet faced. I wish he'd won.
But his powerful showing meant, among other things, that he had a significant hand in writing the Democratic party platform for 2016. (In fact, he named me as one of 15 platform writers. Did I say we were neighbors?) And though it's far from perfect it is by far the strongest party platform on climate issues Americans have ever seen.
This is my third thought. In four years we've gone from an "all of the above" energy strategy to one that explicitly favors sun and wind over natural gas. The platform promises a Keystone-style test for all federal policy: If it makes global warming worse, it won't be built. And it calls for an emergency climate summit in the first hundred days of the new administration. All those changes are the direct result of your work, showing up to demand action over many months and years.
Thursday night Hillary Clinton pledged to enact that platform and she said "we have to hold every country accountable to their commitments, including ourselves."
"Accountability" is the right word. Will this platform mean anything more than words? That actually depends on you. If we vote as climate voters this fall—and if we then show up to demand that those promises are kept—this could turn out to be a ground-breaking political season. That's why we need you signed on to this pledge and lined up to get out the vote and do the other chores of an election.
But remember: election day is just one day in the political calendar. The other 364 count just as much.
Our job is not to elect a savior. Our job is to elect someone we can effectively pressure. And as tough as the work of this election will be—the real work starts on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
That's how it seems to me, anyway. There's plenty to be scared of this election season and plenty to hope for. And most of all there's plenty of work to be done.
An interesting question is, what are you waiting for?
Global warming is the biggest problem we've ever faced as a civilization—certainly you want to act to slow it down, but perhaps you've been waiting for just the right moment.
© Prashanth Vishwanathan / Greenpeace
The moment when, oh, marine biologists across the Pacific begin weeping in their scuba masks as they dive on reefs bleached of life in a matter of days. The moment when drought in India gets deep enough that there are armed guards on dams to prevent the theft of water. The moment when we record the hottest month ever measured on the planet, and then smash that record the next month, and then smash that record the next month? The moment when scientists reassessing the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet have what one calls an "OMG moment" and start talking about massive sea level rise in the next 30 years?
That would be this moment—the moment when 135 children have drowned in Thailand trying to cool off from the worst heatwave on record there. The moment when, in a matter of months, we've recorded the highest wind speeds ever measured in the western and southern hemispheres.
For years people have patiently and gently tried to nudge us onto a new path for dealing with our climate and energy troubles—we've had international conferences and countless symposia and lots and lots and lots of websites. And it's sort of worked—the world met in Paris last December and announced it would like to hold temperature increases to 1.5C or less. Celebration ensued. But what also ensued was February, when the planet's temperature first broke through that 1.5C barrier. And as people looked past the rhetoric, they saw that the promises made in Paris would add up to a world 3.5C warmer—an impossible world. The world we're starting to see take shape around us.
So there's a need to push harder. A need, as it were, to break free from some of the dogma that's surrounded this issue for a very long time. Yes, we need to have “everyone work together." Yes, we need a “multi-faceted, global effort." But you know what we really need? We need to keep oil and gas and coal in the ground, keep it from being burned and adding its freight of carbon to the global total.
[email protected]: It's Time to #BreakFree From Fossil Fuels https://t.co/fxqlldGmV5 @350 @greenpeaceusa @joshfoxfilm https://t.co/Ehk9en1oNb— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1460129713.0
Which is why, from one end of the planet to the other, people are taking greater risks this month. In one of the biggest coordinated civil disobedience actions the world has ever seen, frontline communities and climate scientists and indigenous people and faith leaders and just plain people who actually give a damn will be sitting down and sitting in and standing pat—blocking, at least for a few hours, those places where the coal and oil and gas currently reside, in the hopes of helping keep them there.
In Australia they'll be taking to kayaks at the world's largest coal port in Newcastle, and in Brazil it's the fracking onslaught they're opposing. In Vancouver they'll be surrounding a new proposed oil terminal on the coast, and in Indonesia they'll be outside the presidential palace in Jakarta. Coal will be the target in the Philippines and Turkey and the UK; oil in Nigeria; gas in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado—on and on around the planet, a swell of people saying the time has come.
RT this if you want the Philippines to #breakfree from fossil fuels & shift to renewables! #breakfree2016 https://t.co/VWQEDbuwtS— GreenpeacePH (@GreenpeacePH)1462330427.0
The time has come to turn up the heat on the small band of companies and people still willing to get rich off fossil fuel, even though it's now utterly clear they're breaking the planet.
The time has come to show that we understand we're in this together across borders and boundaries.
The time has come to take action commensurate with the scale of the problem. Yes, risking arrest is harder than signing a Facebook petition. But experience has shown it can often work—that's what kicked the fight against the Keystone pipeline into high gear, turning it into the highest profile defeat of the oil industry in a generation. That's what made it impossible for Shell to keep drilling in the Arctic, and for Adani to find the funds they need to build Earth's biggest coal mine.
Not everyone can do it—there are regimes that are too authoritarian for anyone to dare even peaceful civil disobedience of this kind. But for those of us who still live in places theoretically committed to freedom, it's time to put that privilege to use. The planet is well outside its comfort zone—that's what it means when whole ecosystems are obliterated in a matter of days. Which means its time for us to be there too.
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And yet despite this, governments around the world still plan to build massive new coal mines and open new oil and gas fields.
But everywhere they do, something remarkable is happening: resistance. This May, people will be joining hands in a new way to step up that fight on the front lines. This May, we're breaking free from fossil fuels across the globe.
Next month, from the oil and gas fields of Nigeria and Brazil to the coal fields of Germany and Australia, people have made their intentions clear: they intend to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground and are willing to put their bodies on the line to do it. Even as the ability to freely protest is constrained in many parts of the world—recent violent crackdowns in the Philippines and Bangladesh mark a tragic uptick in a troubling trend—those who can, are standing up. Resistance is not fading away. It's growing.
That's what Break Free is about: escalating the global fight to keep fossil fuels underground and accelerating a just transition to the renewable energy driven economy we know is possible.
The good news is that the transition to renewable energy is coming sooner and faster than anyone thought. Ninety percent of the new electricity generation installed last year was renewable, leading to two years running of flat—though still too high—global carbon emissions.
But the real reason I see for hope is in the resistance to fossil fuels that is growing everywhere the fossil fuel industry turns. Break Free will be one of those moments that you will remember and if you can find a way to join in an action near you, you will be a part of something special.
It's likely that this fight is the biggest humanity will ever face. It may look like the odds are stacked against us, but no fight worth fighting has ever been easy.
Watch this video to learn more:
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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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