Exxon Blames You for Climate Change

Exxon, our fossil fuel savior.

Exxon, our fossil fuel savior.
Photo: Logan Cyrus (Getty Images)

Over the past few decades, oil companies have largely shifted away from climate denial. Now, you can see the energy giants openly acknowledge that climate change is happening, but their new messaging tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. A new, first-of-its-kind study by Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes explains why: The new language makes it seem like climate change is our fault, not theirs.

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“It’s a really pernicious kind of gaslighting,” said Supran.

The authors, who published their work One Earth on Thursday, used machine learning to analyze 212 public and internal Exxon documents from 1972 and 2019, including all publicly available internal company memos, all advertorials the company paid for in the New York Times, and all of the firm’s flagship climate change reports. For the painstaking research, they employed three different forms of computational linguistics to locate the differences in how Exxon talks about climate change in public versus in private. The discrepancies were stark.

For instance, in internal discussions about climate change, Exxon frequently uses terms like “fossil fuel,” “fossil fuels,” and “fossil fuel combustion.” Similarly, when talking about the effects of using its own products, Exxon’s internal discussions are full of terms like “fossil fuel emissions” and “fossil fuel CO2.”

But you’ll hardly ever see it use those terms in public. Instead, it says “demand,” “energy demand,” and “consumers” come with a climate “risk,” suggesting that individual choices are the problem, and that the fuels we use are a potential threat to safety rather than the basis of a crisis that’s already well underway. And instead of saying those actions cause “fossil fuel emissions,” it opts to use the term “greenhouse gas emissions,” conveniently omitting information about what products create that pollution. The company also publicly focuses on the need to increase “energy efficiency” as a solution rather than, you know, ending the production of fossil fuels.

“In private, they name the heart of the problem, which is their products, but in public their public communications were biased towards individualistic framings,” Supran said.

The same is true of Exxon’s discussions of solving the climate crisis. Publicly, it not only fails to mention its own role in causing the climate crisis but also often promotes itself as part of the solution. Its outward-facing rhetoric is full of references to the “promise” of its technological “solutions,” drawing focus to how it is “developing” and “innovating” new technologies. The authors call this a narrative of “fossil fuel saviorism” combined with “technological optimism,” which eschew any discussions of phasing out fossil fuel extraction.

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“There’s such an asymmetry in the way the problem and its solutions are represented,” said Supran. “The function of this is to promote the company as basically a trusted innovator whose fossil fuel-based solutions we should look to rely on to get us out of this problem that ostensibly we, the consumers, caused.”

Though the study only looks at Exxon, these patterns reflect the rhetorical choices of the fossil fuel industry at large. It was the oil company BP that popularized the use of the term “carbon footprint” to shift focus on corporate responsibility to consumers. In an interview this week Shell’s CEO spoke about how his company’s technological prowess is “absolutely needed” to fight the climate crisis. Last year, Shell also got wrecked on Twitter when it asked consumers what we would be “willing to change to help reduce emissions.”

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The fingerprints of these public relations strategies can even be found in international climate policy. As the study notes, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—which fossil fuel lobbyists were involved in negotiating—doesn’t mention the term “fossil fuels” at all.

If this all makes you mad, you’re certainly not alone—and there are ways to fight back. Supran pointed to the increasing popularity of greentrolling and climate-focused comedy videos as signs that people are ready to call the fossil fuel industry out on its bullshit.

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On a bigger level, right now, energy giants including Exxon are facing hundreds of global lawsuits that allege they’ve curbed climate action by pushing misinformation on the public. Activists and lawyers around the world are also fighting to ban fossil fuel advertising, or at least get it to come with warnings about the dangers of their products. And the Clean Creatives campaign is also attempting to push public affairs firms to cut ties with the oil industry. (Even law students are putting pressure on top firms to stop doing Big Oil’s dirty work.)

All of these actions can serve as an important counterweight to the fossil fuel industry’s insidious attempt to “groom us to see ourselves as consumers first and citizens seconds,” Supran said. 

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“It’s very hard to point to one headline in isolation where the company may say something like, ‘technology is promising,’ and claim that that’s problematic,” he said. “But when you take a step back, you see how it’s constructing all of these overarching narratives.”

In response to the study, Exxon has dropped the “bombshell” that Supran’s co-author, esteemed Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, has a relationship with a legal firm that’s been filing climate lawsuits, which I guess it wants us to find damning or something. But it’s not. “Sher Edling played no role in the paper we published today, nor in any other academic work we have done,” the authors wrote in an email.

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Exxon also put out a statement saying it “is working to reduce company emissions and helping customers reduce their emissions while working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies.” But then, of course it did.

“ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public,” the authors said.

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Update 5/14/2020, 1:24 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include information about Exxon’s response to the study.

The EPA Is Doing Its Job Again

Illustration for article titled The EPA Is Doing Its Job Again

Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

For the Environmental Protection Agency, having Donald Trump in office was kind of like letting loose a bull in a china shop for four years. Now, the Biden administration is rapidly attempting to clean up the mess he left behind. In doing so, we’re getting a better picture of just how far the agency has fallen behind in holding polluters accountable even before Trump showed up.

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The EPA said Thursday that it was moving to rescind a rule issued under the Trump administration that hamstrung the agency’s ability to effectively calculate and enforce air pollution violations under the Clean Air Act. The regulation, known as the cost-benefit rule, required the agency to complicate its cost-benefit analysis for rulemaking. Trump’s EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said it was designed to reduce transparency, but also admitted would prevent the EPA from passing future regulations on things like mercury pollution from power plants—a rule that cost industry $9 billion to comply with after it was passed under the Obama administration. (The cost-benefit regulation was a long-awaited wish list item for the fossil fuel industry, which gives you an idea of who really benefited from the rule.)

The move is the latest in this administration’s effort to undo the damage Trump did. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office requiring the EPA to review all rules and policies passed under Trump. That’s good and all given the widespread damage Trump did to the agency by appointing coal lovers Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler to lead the EPA during his administration.

But a new report from the agency’s watchdog shows the EPA has been dragging its feet a little on keeping polluters in line even before our last Big Wet President wreaked havoc. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Thursday that found that between 2007 and 2018, there was a decline across the board in enforcement actions from the EPA with some types of enforcement actions declining by as much as 50%. This decline was despite a corresponding boom in industrial activity and economic growth that should have prompted the agency to go after polluters even harder.

“The decline in compliance monitoring activities meant that, over time, the Agency and the public had less knowledge about compliance by regulated entities and whether facilities emitted pollutants that could be harmful to people,” the report found.

The reason for this decline, the report found, was a decline in resources. The budget for EPA enforcement in 2018 was 18% less than it was in 2006, laeding leadership to cut resources even as polluting industries saw a boom. The report also found that leadership in the agency chose to put most of their enforcement resources into bigger efforts, leaving the smaller enforcement actions to less-well-funded state agencies.

Much of this decline in funding happened pre-Trump; his gutting of the agency, including eliminating some wonky but key enforcement actions, served to hamstring enforcement even further. But there are signs that the Biden EPA is working to make up for lost time, especially as it commits itself to climate progress and environmental justice. Last week, the agency’s acting assistant administrator sent a memo instructing the agency to ramp up “enforcement of violations of cornerstone environmental statutes” in communities vulnerable to pollution. The agency also issued a fresh update this week with new statistics and measurements on its Climate Change Indicators site, which sat long-neglected under the Trump administration. (The EPA climate change subsite also returned earlier this year.)

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It was wild watching how quickly the Trump EPA moved to roll back environmental protections—but disappointing knowing the agency was letting some polluters off the hook even before he showed up. Here’s hoping the new administration will work double-time to right the ship.

This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Illustration for article titled This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Photo: Click & Grow

Click & Grow 25 is the latest project by former orchestra conductor Mattias Lepp who felt that the idea of indoor gardens—essentially, a farmer’s market in a box—would be just the tool for staving off future food shortages. His company, founded in 2009, raised $11 million in 2018 to develop new materials and hardware technologies for indoor gardens. Now, he and the Click & Grow team are taking the tools they used to build large-scale gardens and bringing them into the home.

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Lepp calls his tech “hyper-local farming,” and he claims that what he and his team created is entirely unique.

“We’re the only ones in both vertical farming and smaller indoor growing device segment who have figured out how to provide the future of sustainable food while being profitable and having a global reach,” he said. “Compared to big vertical farms we’ve looked at what’s the real problem of vitamin-rich foods like leafy greens—it’s the overly long supply chains that produce waste, nutritional degradation, and transport emissions. The greens from vertical farms still go through the traditional food supply chain, albeit they’re fresher, cleaner, and come from a more local urban farm, they sit in stores, get moved around and half go to waste in a dark corner of a fridge. Unlike vertical farms, we’ve taken a step out of the traditional supply chain and figured out the only sustainable solution, both in terms of nature and business, and that is growing food at the place of consumption.”

Illustration for article titled This Indoor Garden Will Feed You Greens Year-Round

Photo: Click & Grow

The Click & Grow 25, which is currently available through Kickstarter, costs $399 for early birds and consists of a frame, containers, and lights. The plants grow out of coffee-pod-like earth nuggets and the whole system is designed for minimal interaction. The Smart Soil pods contain calibrated dirt and nutrients and the system waters the plants automatically.

Lepp’s goal was to make the system as small and simple as possible.

“In 2018 we looked at the numbers and figured out that a family of 4 could feasibly grow a fifth of their food plate in expendable living space, on just 80 square feet of wall at home, for example,” he said. “The idea went through different experiments and prototypes through the years, mainly focusing on how to integrate a garden of this size into even a small New York City apartment and into anyone’s busy lifestyle with its ease of use.”

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The team plans to ship in February 2022, and there are a number of permutations of the garden product, which you can stack them against a wall for maximum usage of space. An app will tell you when you add water and when your greens are ready to nosh.

The product is already fully funded to the tune of more than $227,000 and counting, and it looks like just the thing for folks who might need to feed a hungry family or just a hungry rabbit.

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The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Illustration for article titled The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Photo: Richard Drew (AP)

Tucker Carlson has used his platform to, among other things, undermine climate science and lie about renewable energy. Yet last week, he put out an impassioned plea to save the Maine woods, claiming that “real environmentalists” should oppose a power line connecting Quebec hydropower to the U.S. Bizarrely, he and the Sierra Club are on the same page.

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The segment and the alignment with traditional environmental groups paint a picture of how complex renewable energy projects can be for local communities—and what the upcoming culture war over renewables might look like.

The project that attracted Carlson’s wrath is a proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) transmission line owned by local power company Central Maine Power that is intended to connect hydropower produced in Canada to the grid in Massachusetts, all in the service of helping the state meet its ambitious climate goals. Construction began in February despite numerous legal challenges from green groups and a bitter public relations war that has dragged on for years in the state.

The tone of Carlson’s segment is over-the-top dramatic, often in an unintentionally funny way. Most of it is set over a soundtrack of racing violins or pounding drums. At one point, the camera zooms in on an animal skull below footage of powerlines, as if to suggest instant death from coming into contact with a transmission line—which, in case you need reminding, are pretty normal pieces of the energy grid. The segment also seems tailor-made to appeal to people in the region. One of the interviewees is filmed in what looks like a woodland lodge bar that prominently displays a bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy and a can of Moxie—two drinks produced in Maine and beloved by Mainers—on the bar next to him in the shot. Another says that “there is no doubt Tom Brady is the GOAT” in a seemingly completely unrelated aside during his interview.

“The whole state of Maine will become an ugly place” with the project, one of the interviewees tells Carlson.

While this dramatic production may seem funny, it also paints a picture of how aggressive opposition to new renewable energy projects can be even though many are relatively innocuous pieces of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things—and are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. And yet—I can’t believe I’m saying this—tone aside, Carlson does a not-terrible job of laying out some of the facts of the case. He describes the environmental issues with the proposed corridor, including how it endangers what’s among the most robust natural habitat for the trout in the U.S., as well as the failure to consult with local communities. He even technically gives the emissions calculations of the project a (very small) sliver of airtime: The segment addresses the facts that cutting down trees eliminates their ability to sequester carbon and that the reservoirs that form behind hydropower dams emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

These issues are key reasons why environmental groups have opposed the transmission project as well, including that the project wouldn’t reduce overall emissions but rather just ship clean power that would’ve been used elsewhere to Massachusetts.

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“This is a shell game,” said Sue Ely, a staff attorney at Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s not renewable energy, it doesn’t help Maine’s renewable energy industry, and it’s very damaging to Maine’s environment.”

NRCM filed a lawsuit last fall with the Sierra Club challenging the federal government’s environmental impact review of the project. Indeed, what’s riled up most local opposition—and what Carlson’s report focused on—is the project’s proposal to clear 53 miles (85 kilometers) of new transmission corridor in Maine’s North Woods, a 3.5 million acre chunk of wildland that borders Canada. The North Woods is the biggest undeveloped forest in the eastern U.S., and makes up more the half the state itself. It’s also a big economic driver for a state that’s been struggling in the post-industrial era, with a thriving timber industry and thousands of visitors each year. Tourism is an enormous sector of Maine’s economy; rafting, snowmobiling, and camping are all prominent sources of revenue in the North Woods that would be negatively impacted by visible power lines.

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“There are tons of transmission corridors in the state, but CMP snaked this line right in between the protected areas,” said Ely. “They slalomed through it.”

A spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters, the CMP-owned lobbying organization for the project, said in an email that these claims “were presented to and ultimately rejected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Massachusetts regulators.” (The group also said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News that CMP wasn’t allowed to participate in the Carlson segment, and that producers used stock footage and “false descriptions” of the project.)

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Even before Carlson—who owns a home in Maine and has even broadcast his show from the state—showed up with his cameras, there was plenty of mudslinging around the corridor project to be had on both sides. Clean Energy Matters has spent nearly $20 million in advertising on a pro-corridor campaign. Both groups like NRCM and the Sierra Club as well as Carlson in his segment repeatedly refer to CMP as “foreign-owned” (CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, which, in turn, is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola)—a term that’s been used in other energy fights to stoke xenophobic fears and images of foreigner stealing American jobs.

The spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters pointed out in an email to Earther that some opposition efforts to the corridor project “are funded by three corporations with oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.” Those companies are Calpine, Vistra, and NextEra, which have poured their own millions into advertising campaigns against the project. Clean Energy Matters has also attacked NRCM for what it says are ties to natural gas groups after NRCM got a donation from an anti-corridor group with murky funders.

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“It’s so vicious,” Ely said of the fight. “It really hardens people.”

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And, like many local fights, the actual issues at hand—lowering greenhouse gas emissions and figuring out how to best fit renewables into the local landscape—seem to be getting lost in the brawl. Caratunk, a 68-person town along the proposed transmission line’s route, had been working with NextEra on installing a proposed 150-megawatt solar farm. The chair of Caratunk’s selectboard said in a 2018 letter to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that the CMP corridor project would prevent the development of this project and potentially other local renewables projects in the area. The selectboard chair appeared in the Carlson segment as a voice of local opposition, with no mention of the alternative solar project. While there’s a chance the selectboard chair didn’t bring up the project with producers, it’s not out of the question to think that Carlson’s team didn’t want to spotlight how opponents of the “green energy scam,” as they called the CMP project, might be in favor of other renewable energy ventures in Maine.

The brook trout in the North Woods—or the lobster in the Gulf of Maine or any of the state’s other ecosystems for that matter—can’t hang on much longer if our planet keeps baking at the rate it’s going. Weighed out on a cosmic scale, if cutting 53 miles through a pristine section of woods could help an enormous energy-using state keep its emissions down, it might be worth it, despite the big local tradeoffs. That seems to be the attitude of some conservation and environment groups in the state who have begrudgingly signaled their support—or, at least, the end to their opposition—for the project in recent weeks.

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I asked Ely about this challenge. If the CMP project was bringing a completely uncontested source of renewable power into New England—or, perhaps, if a transmission line through the North Woods could be connected to a renewable project that serves Maine and creates renewable energy jobs in the state—would the green groups be so opposed? She sighed.

“I have felt really fortunate in this fight that I have not had to answer that question—it’s a really good question,” she said. “In Maine, if we really want to do what our governor says—reach net zero by 2045, reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050—it’s going to require this massive buildout of renewable energy resources and a massive electrification of everything we can possibly electrify. We need to grow our grid somewhere in the ballpark of three times, and that is going to require building these massive transmission structures. And this anti-transmission line fervor is really going to hinder our ability to reach our clean energy goals.”

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It’s that fervor Carlson seems intent on stoking, though based on his past body of work, it’s for reasons likely less in line with those of local environmental group.

“This corridor is more than an energy project—it’s an attack against rural America and the people who live there,” Carlson said in his segment. That is, of course, untrue, but he’s setting the stage for his audience to view all renewable energy projects with skepticism and as an attack on the environment. If conversations around renewable projects can’t stay honest—and if big companies that plan to profit off the energy transition don’t start thinking about the local impacts of what they’re doing—there will be plenty of fodder for the culture war to come.

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It’s Time to Kill Earth Day

A woman takes part in a protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019.

A woman takes part in a protest in Cali, Colombia, on Sept. 20, 2019.
Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP (Getty Images)

Hooray, it’s Earth Day! That one day of the year when we can all come together and celebrate treating our planet with respect. From first-graders to Jeff Bezos, everyone loves a good, ol’ fashion Earth Day. So, I regret to inform you that we must kill Earth Day and replace it with something more urgent.

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The first Earth Day in 1970 was a radical idea, and it had radical results. Spearheaded as a national “teach-in” day by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat and famous conservationist, Earth Day grew out of the civil rights movement. A burgeoning but localized environmental movement inspired by author Rachel Carlson’s best-selling 1962 book, Silent Spring, which detailed the devastating environmental effects of the chemical DDT, fed into the push as well. The devastating 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and the Cuyahoga River literally catching on fire the same year added increased pressure to address the deluge of pollution.

For the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a reported 20 million Americans marched on behalf of their planet, solidifying environmental issues as a major concern for Americans. What followed was a spate of governmental action that is unthinkable today: The passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Richard Nixon signed into existence in December 1970. Today, Earth Day is celebrated in nearly every country.

Earth Day is, in short, largely responsible for the world’s environmental awakening and the regulations to rein in pollution that arose in the decades after that first iteration. The ripple effects of Earth Day and the ideas it instilled and inspired are so widespread and profound that they are virtually impossible to adequately summarize. (I highly recommend listening to this episode of NPR’s Thoughline to better understand Earth Day’s impact.)

Yet today, Earth Day has lost its radical identity right at the moment when that type of energy is essential to our continued existence on this planet. It has, instead, become a “celebration”—a Good Day for Brands™ to greenwash their environmental impacts by announcing pledges, environmental-themed musicals, deals, and this year, inexplicably, NFTs. As climate reporter Emily Atkin wrote in her Heated newsletter, all of these PR pitches are “hot, useless garbage” that have made Earth Day “hell on Earth” for environmental journalists.

Earth Day’s PR-friendly image is not a coincidence. The name “Earth Day” itself is the invention of renowned ad man Julian Koenig, who volunteered to help Sen. Nelson and Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes with their cause. (Fun fact: Julian Koenig is the father of Sarah Koenig, creator of Serial.) And its widespread and enduring appeal is arguably thanks to how palatable it was to mainstream—read: white, suburban—America.

But the increasingly overt brand-friendliness of Earth Day is not merely an annoyance for cranky journalists. It poses a huge risk to the planet and people by lulling us into a false sense of things being marginally better. Big Oil’s main front group has spent the day tweeting about its supposed green bonafides. But the greenest bonafide would be it not existing. It would be Coke paying up for the plastic pollution it creates. It would be acknowledging the undue burden of pollution in communities of color, a legacy that continues since the first Earth Day.

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Wilbur Thomas, a Black scientist, said in a speech on Earth Day 1970, “The nitty gritty issues relevant to Blacks is simply the fact that a disproportionate number of Blacks are exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks in addition to the regular burden.”

While the impacts of Earth Day are indisputable, so too is the deficient action we’ve taken in the decades since its inception. Humanity’s inaction over the past 51 years since Earth Day began has led to a global plastics crisis, the destruction of 97% of Earth’s ecosystems, melting glaciers, rising seas, water shortages, increases in extreme weather, and a carbon saturation in the atmosphere of 420 parts per million—up from 315 ppm when measurements began in the 1950s. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere haven’t been this high for 3 million years.

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In other words, while Earth Day ignited our collective consciousness around environmental issues and has, either directly or indirectly, led to unfathomable progress, it still wasn’t enough to combat the capitalistic forces that have led us to the yawning chasm stretching out before us today. And we still have yet to achieve true environmental justice that centers Black and brown communities living in the shadow of smokestacks and freeways. There’s movement to right those wrongs, yes. The youth climate movement and some traditional environmental organizations are finally opening the tent to communities of color. But we need the tent to grow even further and for radical ideas to be closer to the center.

At its inception, Earth Day was a revolutionary idea that marked a turning point for politics, policy, and the planet. But the celebratory, brand-friendly version of Earth Day we have today is detrimental to the very cause for which it ostensibly exists.

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Earth Day must die because its existence allows for the illusion of action amid a fog of feel-good celebration, as if the climate is not currently on a collision course with catastrophe. Yes, Earth Day provides a handy anniversary for politicians to take real climate action, but the day itself has become scenery rather than the engine for change that we desperately need.

We need a new Earth Day with as much potency as the first Earth Day if we are to address the challenges that lay before us. We need a new idea to blast apart the partisan divides and monied forces that have wrecked the climate for power and profit. We need a newfound spark that, like the first Earth Day, further marries the movement for racial equality with a revolution in clean energies. And we need leaders who can help us ensure that this crucial moment of hope does not evaporate into a vapor of eternal failure.

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Solving the Climate Crisis Hinges on the U.S. and China Cooperating

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during a press conference on April 18, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea after two days of climate talks in Shanghai, China.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during a press conference on April 18, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea after two days of climate talks in Shanghai, China.
Photo: U.S. Embassy Seoul (Getty Images)

The U.S. and China are the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas polluters, together constituting some 40% of the world’s carbon emissions. On Sunday, leaders from the two countries announced that they’re willing to work together to enact urgent climate policy.

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In a joint statement, U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry and China’s chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua said they’d reached the agreement during a two-day meeting in Shanghai last week. Continued cooperation will be key to address the climate crisis going forward if the world is to have a fair and equitable shot at reducing carbon emissions at the scale needed.

President Joe Biden’s virtual Earth Day summit kicked off on Thursday, offering yet another opportunity for the two countries to collaborate. Biden announced a more ambitious pledge to the Paris Agreement to reduce U.S. emissions 50% to 52% by 2030, and China is expected to make an announcement about its intent as well (as are many of the other countries in attendance). The agreement was seen as hinging on cooperation between the two nations when it was negotiated in 2015.

Happily, Sunday’s announcement adopts a markedly different tone from the Biden administration’s recently released infrastructure plan, which is full of rhetoric about the need to “out-compete China” rather than cooperate with the nation. (Chinese leaders, meanwhile, have been more open to collaboration, though they have retaliated when the U.S. has escalated tensions.)

That cooperative approach is preferable for a number of reasons. The climate crisis is the gravest existential threat facing humanity, and taking it on will require major shifts from both powerful nations. Those shifts will be easier to make if they work together since both have different resources at their disposal.

“The U.S. and China both have major strengths in dealing with the climate crisis, which could be much better combined and coordinated in order to reduce global [carbon] emissions as fast as necessary,” Ashik Siddique, a research analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project, wrote in an email.

China has the biggest industrial capacity in the world. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has increased its global share of solar photovoltaic production, leaping from less than 1% to more than 60% of the world’s solar panels. China is now the world’s largest producer of electric cars. It makes over one-third of global wind turbines. And it houses over two-thirds of the world’s production capacity for lithium ion batteries. Meanwhile, Siddique noted the U.S. “has advanced research and development and access to massive financial capital,” both of which would help with meeting the moment when it comes to deploying those technologies.

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As the two largest polluters and two largest economies, both China and the U.S. also have the responsibility to help countries with fewer resources—especially in the southern hemisphere—with their clean energy transitions. Rather than competing to create and hock clean energy wares to the developing world, the nations banding together could help ensure that every country has access to cheap renewable energy.

Of course, each country could simply choose to go it alone, developing and rolling out clean technologies to replace fossil fuel infrastructure. But this competitive approach would be less efficient. Given the short timeline to transition to renewables to avert even more catastrophic climate change, inefficiency is a death sentence for millions around the world.

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“Right now, the U.S. and China are stuck in a mindset of nationalistic competition over who is going to dominate cutting-edge clean energy technologies, and that encourages both countries to hoard these technologies,” Tobita Chow, the director of the Justice Is Global project for the progressive organization People’s Action, who also co-wrote a comprehensive outline on what U.S. cooperation with China should look like, said in a Twitter direct message. “In order to provide greater access to these technologies throughout the Global South, both countries would need to agree to cooperate rather than compete with each other.”

On this front, the joint statement on the Shanghai meeting was a step in the right direction. It included a pledge to “take appropriate actions to maximize international investment and finance in support of the transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy to green, low-carbon and renewable energy in developing countries.” Chow found that promise “encouraging,” noting that to meet it, the nations could increase funding for the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations’ grant-making body that provides resources for international climate action.

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China is the largest current contributor to the climate crisis and the U.S. is the largest historical emitter. But now, both nations have a chance to lead the charge for a more just, greener future. After all, a Cold War is no way to take on global warming.

Louisiana Representative Boldly Offers to Make His State a ‘Sanctuary’ for Fossil Fuels

Danny McCormick, fossil fuel protector

Danny McCormick, fossil fuel protector
Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty Images)

A brave Louisiana legislator has a plan to protect poor, helpless fossil fuels by offering up his state as a safe space where they can be dug up, refined, and burned free from judgment (and government regulation). 

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Republican Rep. Danny McCormick, who hails from the town of Oil City (yes, that’s its real name), introduced House Bill 617 last week in an attempt to make Louisiana a “fossil fuel sanctuary state.” The measure would essentially create a loophole for all federal oil and gas regulations by prohibiting local, parish, and state officials from enforcing them within state lines. That includes restrictions on oil and gas extraction, limitations on the use or sale of fossil fuels, and also all taxes or fees that could negatively impact dirty energy companies. Finally, someone is thinking of Big Oil!

McCormick, who happens to own an oil company, told a Louisiana ABC affiliate that the bill is important in light of the “craziness coming out of Washington attacking the fossil fuel industry.” In McCormick’s case, “craziness” is the Biden administration’s slowly evolving plan to gradually wind down the fossil fuel industry.

Perversely—er, nobly—the act’s language was inspired by other municipalities’ sanctuary city designations that resisted cruel federal immigration policies, according to NOLA.com. Under those measures, city and state lawmakers codified their commitments not to hand over undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers to authorities to be deported. Very reasonable and totally comparable to protecting one of the nation’s most destructive industries that will be culpable for impending climate catastrophe if we don’t wind it down.

In all seriousness, this absurd proposal is the latest move from Republican state officials since Biden entered office that attempts to shield entrenched fossil fuel interests from future federal regulations. In March, 21 Republican attorneys general (including Louisiana’s), sued the Biden administration, arguing that its decision to revoke a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline would be unconstitutional, A Grist investigation found the move was sparked by the nefarious industry-backed American Legislative Exchange Council. That same month, Texas legislators introduced a bill to blacklist companies that “boycott” fossil fuels. Before that, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order in June to deploy state powers to challenge national climate policy. McCormick’s proposal goes even further than these other measures by not only attempting to overturn federal regulations but effectively nullifying them on the state level.

McCormick’s proposal comes as Louisiana’s oil and gas industry attempts to recover from the historic drop in fuel demand brought on by covid-19 restrictions. In the past year, fossil fuel companies have laid off 7,500 workers in the state.

“The question is: How will we replace all those jobs if the fossil fuel industry is destroyed?” he told NOLA.com. “Nobody’s been able to answer that.”

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Except this question has, in fact, been answered numerous times. The Biden administration itself has answered how climate policy could lead to a jobs boom. A report published just last week shows how plugging abandoned wells could be a perfect match between oil workers’ skills and climate needs. A just transition is catching on as a way to preserve workers’ livelihoods and protect the climate. In Louisiana, there are other major concerns to worry about when it comes to climate change like sea level rise, which is itself largely a product of the energy industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not clear the bill will even get a hearing—experts told NOLA.com that it’s so vague as to be totally unenforceable. But it is clear there’s plenty of work that actually needs getting done instead of just trying to create a safe space for the industry. Maybe McCormick could give that a try instead.

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Don’t Watch Netflix’s Seaspiracy

A film still from Seaspiracy.

A film still from Seaspiracy.
Image: Gizmodo (Fair Use)

Yesterday, the sun was shining bright, and birds were chirping outside my window, and the buds were really starting to coming out on the trees. It was a stupidly perfect day really, and I had to go ruin it all by watching Seaspiracy.

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The Netflix documentary has been among the streaming service’s most popular films since coming out in late March, and yet nearly every marine scientist I’ve seen talking about it has wanted to see the movie sunk into the Challenger Deep, never to be seen again due to rampant misinformation. I’ll leave much of the debunking of the bad science in the film to the subject matter experts. (That includes some of those quoted in the film, who have also said they were misrepresented.) What’s just as disturbing about Seaspiracy, though, is the facile way it frames up how to solve the problems facing the ocean and society in the privileged vegan bro savioriest way possible.

The premise of Seaspiracy is that Ali Tabrizi, its director and narrator, wanted to make a movie about the wonders of the ocean, but quickly got freaked out that humans’ actions were strangling the seas. It chronicles his transition from doing local beach cleanups to getting concerned about whaling and going to the infamous cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphin slaughters take place on the regular. That sets off a round-the-world trip and interviews with nearly three dozen experts or people involved in the fishing industry.

Throughout the film, Tabrizi argues that the real issues affecting the ocean are not what the mainstream media would have you believe while simultaneously showing news clippings and studies covered in the news to try and make his points. Climate change gets shrugged off, and so does plastic pollution from land. Straws? Perish the thought! Instead, Tabrizi’s film takes issue with ghost fishing gear, a topic widely covered in the media including this very site, and slavery at sea, the subject of a major New York Times investigation in 2015. I understand not everyone is reading ocean news all day, every day, but the repackaging of it by Tabrizi and then yelling, “why is nobody covering this???” is a nice story that’s just completely false.

Misrepresenting journalism and academics isn’t the only issue, though. Throughout it all, Tabrizi plays up racial tropes. The bad guys are Asians, specifically Japanese whale and dolphin hunters and Chinese consumers of shark fin soup. The good guys—in this case, the experts he cites—are mostly white. Christina Hicks, one of the only people of color in the film with a speaking role and a scientist at the Lancaster Environment Center, tweeted it was “[u]nnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to.” The voices of people who are actually on the front lines of fisheries are largely absent outside of his interviews with three men who were slaves aboard Thai fishing boats that take up a relatively small portion of the film.

There’s a scene off the coast of Liberia after Sea Shepherd activists and Liberian officials intercept an illegal Chinese fishing boat where Tabrizi and the crew also see Liberian men out in a canoe subsistence fishing far from shore. Yet the film goes no further than showing them as victims of commercial and illegal fishing rather than engaging them as subjects in the debate. (Obviously, this would be tough to facilitate on the high seas, but it’s a real missed opportunity that nothing could be arranged once all parties were back on land.)

What Tabrizi is documenting in his film is the failure of multiple systems, including the parts he glazes over. The oceans are in deep trouble. Climate change is causing the oceans to overheat and acidify. Just 88 companies are responsible for half of all ocean acidification. If climate change continues unchecked, the world’s leading scientists have warned, oceans face “unprecedented conditions” by the middle of this century. The fish Tabrizi says he wants to save won’t exist anymore if we ignore it.

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At the same time, plastic pollution is spiraling out of control from fishing gear to failed recycling programs. Overfishing is also putting pressure on the high seas, and industrial fishing is responsible for everything from slavery and human rights abuses to dumping pollution. It is literally everything humans fucking do—or more accurately, what a few large corporations do thanks to decades of political entrenchment.

To address these problems will require major systemic overhauls of how we manage fisheries, more stringent conservation measures, and bringing fossil fuel companies to account. Seaspiracy’s answer, though, is much more basic: go vegan. The end of the film features a flurry of pro-vegan doctors with a past of somewhat questionable statements and views as well as a vegan seafood company all talking about the wonders of plant-based diets over shots of said vegan seafood.

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And that, in a nutshell, is the issue with the entire film. The film is produced by the same guy behind Cowspiracy, another pro-vegan film that sidesteps other systemic issues and misrepresents science. That explains why the filmmakers didn’t opt for calling it Conspirasea, which was right there for the taking, and also why the only “systemic” solution on the table is individual change, which is wholly inadequate. It also gives no agency to those who depend on fisheries for subsistence or income.

Instead, it comes off as ‘I alone can fix this problem I have only recently learned about,’ and that solution is my preferred method. Tabrizi has been proselytizing about, veganism, since at least 2015, according to archived videos, and directed a film called Vegan in 2018. In one of his archived videos, he says, “Auschwitz was basically designed off factory farming at the time. That’s how Hitler came up with a way to treat the Jews.” So when Tabrizi reaches that veganism is the only answer at the end of Seaspiracy, it’s important to keep that context in mind—whether the research for the film led him to that conclusion or vice versa.

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Look, I would crush a vegan shrimp taco or faux fish and chips any day of the week. And if you want to after watching Seaspiracy, that’s great. Let’s have a picnic in the park and go back to brunch or whatever.

But if you want to actually fix the gratuitous human rights abuses in the fishing industry, the greenwashed labeling system for sustainable fish, and stop climate change, then going vegan ain’t it. Last time I checked, veganism doesn’t reduce plastic in the ocean. Nor does it end climate change or the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t heard of it solving slavery either, but vegans, please sound off in the comments if you must.

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The issue of presenting a relatively simple solution to the huge interlocking crises we face is hardly limited to Seaspiracy. It’s tough to come up with a simple line about how someone watching a film can take down the fossil fuel industry, blow up capitalism, or advocate for salmon farms that are actually sustainable. And it’s very easy to just go down the well-trod road of highlighting one solution that aligns with the filmmakers’ values.

I don’t doubt that the film is well-intentioned with its call to go vegan, either. There are ample reasons for most Americans to cut down their meat consumption, from the climate crisis to animal rights to health. The same is true for seafood, including the negative impacts on biodiversity and human rights. We do need impassioned defenses of everything wondrous about our world before we lose it forever.

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“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle tells Tabrizi in the film’s final scene.

In the case of Seaspiracy, though, Tabrizi is only asking you to do one thing. And that one note is a pretty sour note in light of all the problems we need to address.

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The Crisis at a Florida Wastewater Reservoir Show the Risks of Our Weak Infrastructure

A drone view of Piney Point reservoir.
Gif: Manatee County Government

On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency over fears that a leaking wastewater pond in Manatee County could collapse imminently, triggering a “real catastrophic flood situation.” Officials have ordered more than 300 households to evacuate the area, warning that the looming disaster could unleash a 20-foot (6.1-meter) wall of water into the nearby area.

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The water is full of pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen that could wreak havoc on Tampa Bay and the area. The emergency at Piney Point is indicative of the risks at other industrial reservoirs across the country. That’s particularly true as the climate crisis creates conditions that could lead to breaches and overflows.

Problems began on March 25 at Piney Point, when the facility’s owners, HRK Holdings, first noticed a leak in the reservoir, according to documents reviewed by the Sarasota Tribune. By April 2, an evacuation order was expanded to all who live within 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of the facility, which holds 306 million gallons of waste. That evening, emergency crews attempted to stop up the breach with rocks and other materials, but were unsuccessful. At a Sunday press conference, Gov. DeSantis said the crews, aided by the the Florida National Guard, are pumping water out of the pond at a rate of 33 million gallons a day.

At the rate workers are pumping the reservoir, it will take 10 to 12 days to empty it out. But as they work, they could be contributing to another environmental disaster. The wastewater is currently being ejected into the Tampa Bay, an ecosystem home to a variety of wildlife, including 200 species of fish and rich waterbird nesting populations. The pollution is threatening to create dangerous algae blooms which could put these ecosystems at risk.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Noah Valenstein told local reporters that environmental regulators will monitor water the bay’s quality over time, but right now, protecting these ecosystems isn’t the top priority.

“The imminent threat is public health,” he said. ““We can take care of nutrients in the environment… The bay is resilient.”

The facility has a long history of environmental issues starting when it was created in 1966 and continuing through the present. According to the Tampa Bay Times, state environmental records show that over the past year, HRK Holdings staff have observed numerous cracks that could trigger a large leak in the wastewater reservoir’s plastic liner, including last July, October, and December.

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HRK Holdings did not respond to Earther’s request for comment. One of the two phone numbers on their website is out of service; the other’s voicemail box is full.

“The Piney Point fiasco was completely avoidable,” Glenn Compton, chairman of the Manatee County environmental advocacy organization ManaSota-88, wrote in an email.

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In 2006, HRK Holdings acquired the facility. The Department of Environmental Protection had just finished installing the facility’s plastic lining and removing hundreds of millions of wastewater, but HRK, with permission from state environmental authorities, agreed to accept additional wastewater from a nearby dredging project and store it in the wastewater pond. In 2011, the same reservoir that’s currently leaking sprung a breach due to increased pressure from a heavy downpour of rain, spilling millions of gallons of contaminated water.

The phosphate industry’s damage goes well beyond Piney Point, though. In 2004, a facility at Riverview, Florida leaked and spilled millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Tampa Bay. In 2016, a sinkhole opened up at another phosphate waste facility, sending 215 million gallons of wastewater into waterways. In 2019, a phosphogypsum stack (basically a huge pile of the stuff) in St. James Parish, Louisiana threatened to crack open, prompting an evacuation. In 2004 a gyp stack at Riverview, Florida breached, spilling millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay.

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The latter happened during Hurricane Frances, when waves generated by the storm punctured the dike protecting the reservoir. The climate crisis is contributing to stronger storms as well as sea level rise that could affect retaining walls near the sea. In addition, heavy rains could further undermine key infrastructure. We’ve seen that play out in recent years from Michigan’s dam collapse last year to the risks Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains posed to feedlots and coal ash ponds in the Carolinas in 2018.

Without urgent action to deal with toxic wastewater, other sites containing phosphogypsum could leak in the future. The most persistent solution being considered by Manatee County commissioners, though, is constructing a deep-water well onsite to inject the contaminated water into. But Compton and other environmentalists oppose this since studies show it could be dangerous. Local scholars and officials are also researching ways to neutralize the wastewater and calling for more state funding to do so.

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In February, dozens of conservation, environmental, and public health advocacy groups petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to improve federal oversight of this radioactive waste and safely contain, treat, and dispose of it. Meanwhile, communities in Florida are bracing for the worst.

“It looks like this is turning out to be the ‘horror’ chapter of a long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond,” Justin Bloom, founder and board member of local environmental organization Suncoast Waterkeeper, said in a statement. “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”

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