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By Mark Hertsgaard

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. The interview with Greta Thunberg was conducted by CCNow partners NBC News, Reuters, and The Nation.

By Mark Hertsgaard

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. The interview with Greta Thunberg was conducted by CCNow partners NBC News, Reuters, and The Nation.

Greta Thunberg is “open” to meeting with United States President Joe Biden at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, though the young Swedish activist does not expect much from either the US leader or the make-or-break summit that runs October 31 to November 12.


In an interview with the global media collaboration Covering Climate Now last Wednesday, Thunberg expressed surprise at the idea that Biden, or any world leader, might want to sit down with her at COP26, but said she was open to the possibility, if asked. “I guess that will depend on the situation,” she said. “I don’t see why these people want to meet with me, but yeah.”

A week before she entertained the question about whether she would meet with Biden, Thunberg had accused the US president and other world leaders of offering pretty words but no real action on climate, only “blah blah blah,” in a speech to the Youth4Climate summit. That September 28 clip went viral. In the CCNow interview, conducted by NBC News, Reuters, and The Nation, she complained that youth climate activists “are not being taken seriously” by world leaders. “They’re just saying, ‘We listen to you,’ and then they applaud us, and then they go on just like before.”

The suggestion that Biden has not only spoken strongly about the climate crisis but is also trying to pass the most ambitious climate legislation in US history does not impress Thunberg. The climate measures in the Democrats’ spending plan now under ferocious negotiation in Washington have “been so much watered down by lobbyists,” she said; “so we should not pretend that this would be a solution to the climate crisis.” Biden’s political problem—that as president in a democracy, he shares power with a legislative body where he faces unanimous Republican opposition that is determined to block his agenda—does not interest her. She judges by results only: “Emissions are still going up.”

The notion of meeting with the president of the world’s other climate change superpower, Xi Jinping of China, seemed even more distant to Thunberg than a meeting with Biden. Calling Xi “a leader of a dictatorship,” she nevertheless did not rule out the idea. She stressed, however, that “democracy is the only solution to the climate crisis, since the only thing that could get us out of this situation is…massive public pressure.”

Wearing a grey hoodie and speaking from her kitchen table in Stockholm, Thunberg said that she will attend November’s COP26 despite the summit’s potential for “empty talk” and “greenwashing” because the gathering of thousands of government officials, activists, scientists, and journalists is an opportunity “to show that we are in an emergency, and…we are going to try to mobilize people around this.”

“In such an emergency as we are in right now, everyone needs to take their moral responsibility, at least I think so, and use whatever power they have, whatever platform they have, to try to influence and push in the right direction, to make a change,” she said. “I think that’s our duty as human beings.”

Making COP26 a success, Thunberg suggested, requires unflinching honesty about “the gap between what we are saying and what we are actually doing.… That’s not what we are doing now. We are trying to find concrete, small solutions that are symbolic in order to make it seem like we are doing something, without actually confronting the problem at all. We are still not counting all the emissions when we are announcing targets. We are still using creative accounting when it comes to emissions cuts, and so on. As long as that’s the case, we will not get very far.”

Thunberg endorsed the many lawsuits demanding compensation from fossil fuel companies for their decades of lying about climate change and the resulting damage and suffering, especially in frontline communities. “I think that these people need to be held accountable for all the damage that they have caused…especially for the people whose communities and whose health and livelihoods have been devastated by the actions of these companies,” she said. “I think that’s the bare minimum to ask for.”

The activist also called out the world’s media, which she said has largely “failed…to communicate the emergency that we are in.” She noted that “there are many, many news organizations and journalists that are trying” to do more, and she called the media “one of my biggest sources of hope right now.” Citing the coronavirus, she said that “when the media decided to treat this pandemic as an emergency, that changed social norms overnight. If the media decided, with all the resources that they have, to use their platform…they could reach countless people in no time, and that could have huge consequences, positive consequences.”

Thunberg’s core message has been consistent from the time she first emerged on the world stage with a fiery denunciation of global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January of 2019: Listen to the science and do what it requires; the science says our planetary house is literally on fire, and world leaders and everyone else should act like it.

The fact that world leaders, by her own account, are not doing what she and millions of activists are demanding has not led her and other movement leaders to consider new strategies and tactics, at least not yet. “Right now, we are just repeating the same message, like a broken record,” she said. “And we are going out on the streets because you need to repeat the same message…until people get it. I guess that’s the only option that we have. If we find other ways of doing it in the future that work better, then maybe we will shift.”

Thunberg emphasized that she sees “many, many bright spots” in the climate emergency, citing the millions of people around the world who are taking action. “When I’m taking action, I don’t feel like I am helpless and that things are hopeless, because then I feel like I’m doing everything I can,” she said. “And that gives me very much hope, especially to see all the other people all around the world, the activists, who are taking action and who are fighting for their present and for their future.”

Asked where she sees herself, and humanity, 10 years from now, Greta Thunberg smiled and said, “I have no idea. I think as long as I’m doing everything I can, as long as we are doing everything we can, we can just live in the moment and try to change the future while we still can, instead of trying to predict the future.”

Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative committed to more and better coverage of the climate story. He is also the environment correspondent for The Nation and author of books including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

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A protestor in NYC holds up a sign that reads, "November Is Coming" on June 14, 2020 in reference to voting in the 2020 presidential election. Ira L. Black / Corbis / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard

What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.

By Mark Hertsgaard

What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters’ choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.


Will the White House Turn Green?

Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, “Get your mops and buckets ready.”

Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an “F,” called Trump a “climate arsonist” during California’s recent wildfires. Biden backs a trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.

The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). Public concern is rising in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?

Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?

With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn’t. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.

Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.

  • Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science
  • Martha McSally of Arizona
  • Thom Tillis of North Carolina
  • Susan Collins of Maine
  • Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)
  • John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)

Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.

In the House, environmentalists are working to elect these candidates, in one case over an establishment Democrat:

  • Beth Doglio of Washington state
  • Georgette Gómez of California
  • Marie Newman of Illinois
  • Cameron Webb of Virginia
  • Mike Siegel and Wendy Davis of Texas

We rightfully focus on federal climate policy, but climate action must also be made at the state and local level—and there are plenty of races and initiatives to pay attention to.

Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?

THE CLIMATE HAWKS

Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.

THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS

Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.

A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners’ electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.

In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what HuffPost called “the most important environmental race in the country,” Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America’s leading petro-state can build.

Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?

THE UNCOUNTED

The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don’t vote. Stinnett’s Environmental Voter Project works to awaken this sleeping giant.

THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT

Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the Sunrise Movement are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?

THE STARPOWER

And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, Vote Like A Madre aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a “pinky promise” to vote for their kids’ climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, “Will the White House Turn Green?”

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Four more years will be enough to cement in place Trump's anti-environmental policies and to make sure it's too late to really change course. Enrique Meseguer / Pixabay

By Bill McKibben

To understand the planetary importance of this autumn's presidential election, check the calendar. Voting ends on November 3—and by a fluke of timing, on the morning of November 4 the United States is scheduled to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

By Bill McKibben

To understand the planetary importance of this autumn’s presidential election, check the calendar. Voting ends on November 3—and by a fluke of timing, on the morning of November 4 the United States is scheduled to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

President Trump announced that we would abrogate our Paris commitments during a Rose Garden speech in 2017. But under the terms of the accords, it takes three years to formalize the withdrawal. So on Election Day it won’t be just Americans watching: The people of the world will see whether the country that has poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other over the course of history will become the only country that refuses to cooperate in the one international effort to do something about the climate crisis.


Trump’s withdrawal benefited oil executives, who have donated millions of dollars to his reelection campaign, and the small, strange fringe of climate deniers who continue to insist that the planet is cooling. But most people living in the rational world were appalled. Polling showed widespread opposition, and by some measures, Trump is more out of line with the American populace on environmental issues than any other. In his withdrawal announcement he said he’d been elected “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”; before the day was out, Pittsburgh’s mayor had pledged that his city would follow the guidelines set in the French capital. Young people, above all, have despised the president’s climate moves: Poll after poll shows that climate change is a top-tier issue with them and often the most important one—mostly, I think, because they’ve come to understand how tightly linked it is not just to their future but to questions of justice, equity, and race.

Here’s the truth: At this late date, meeting the promises set in Paris will be nowhere near enough. If you add up the various pledges that nations made at that conference, they plan on moving so timidly that the planet’s temperature will still rise more than 3 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. So far, we’ve raised the mercury 1 degree Celsius, and that’s been enough to melt millions of square miles of ice in the Arctic, extend fire seasons for months, and dramatically alter the planet’s rainfall patterns. Settling for 3 degrees is kind of like writing a global suicide note.

Happily, we could go much faster if we wanted. The price of solar and wind power has fallen so fast and so far in the last few years that they are now the cheapest power on earth. There are plenty of calculations to show it will soon be cheaper to build solar and wind farms than to operate the fossil fuel power stations we’ve already built. Climate-smart investments are also better for workers and economic equality. “We need to have climate justice, which means to invest in green energy, [which] creates three times more jobs than to invest in fossil fuel energy,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in an interview with Covering Climate Now in September. If we wanted to make it happen, in other words, an energy revolution is entirely possible. The best new study shows that the United States could cut its current power sector emissions 80 percent by 2035 and create 20 million jobs along the way.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris haven’t pledged to move that quickly, but their climate plan is the farthest-reaching of any presidential ticket in history. More to the point, we can pressure them to go farther and faster. Already, seeing the polling on the wall, they’ve adopted many of the proposals of climate stalwarts like Washington Governor Jay Inslee. A team of Biden and Bernie Sanders representatives worked out a pragmatic but powerful compromise in talks before the Democratic National Convention; the Biden-Harris ticket seems primed to use a transition to green energy as a crucial part of a push to rebuild the pandemic-devastated economy.

Perhaps most important, they’ve pledged to try to lead the rest of the world in the climate fight. The United States has never really done this. Our role as the single biggest producer of hydrocarbons has meant that our response to global warming has always been crippled by the political power of Big Oil. But that power has begun to slip. Once the biggest economic force on the planet, the oil industry is a shadow of its former self. (You could buy all the oil companies in America for less than the cost of Apple; Tesla is worth more than any other auto company on earth.) And so it’s possible that the hammerlock on policy exercised by this reckless industry will loosen if Trump is beaten.

But only if he’s beaten. Four more years will be enough to cement in place his anti-environmental policies and to make sure it’s too late to really change course. The world’s climate scientists declared in 2018 that if we had any chance of meeting sane climate targets, we had to cut emissions almost in half by 2030. That’s less than 10 years away. We’re at the last possible moment to turn the wheel of the supertanker that is our government. Captain Trump wants to steer us straight onto the rocks, mumbling all the while about hoaxes. If we let him do it, history won’t forgive us. Nor will the rest of the world.

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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