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Central America has been through a wet version of Hell these past few weeks, as first a Category 4 and then a Category 5 hurricane crashed into the same part of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, dumping crippling amounts of rain on that country, Guatemala, and Honduras. Delphine Schrank opened an account of the toll on Honduras’s second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, for the Washington Post with this anecdote: “Blanca Costa crouched on a wooden cart with her three daughters under a highway bridge. . . . The cart was the one possession Costa was able to save when they clambered out [of their flooded house]. The three horses that pulled it, enabling her to earn money as a trash collector, were gone. It would take years, she said, to save enough to buy another one.”
It goes without saying that Costa and her daughters had done nothing to cause the increase in global temperature that, in turn, allowed massive late-season hurricanes to form in their corner of the Atlantic. And it goes without saying that Honduras will now have an even harder time paying for a changed energy system to help it convert to clean energy, as its commitments set in the Paris climate accord envision—its cobbled-together reconstruction plan is unsurprisingly focussed on rebuilding the bridges and roads that the storms destroyed.
Such intuitions about blame and responsibility have usually been offered in airy moral terms, but a new report released on Wednesday puts them into numbers. The analysis, from the activist group U.S. Climate Action Network, draws on the work of Tom Athanasiou, at a California-based nonprofit called EcoEquity, and his colleagues at the Climate Equity Reference Project. It tries to calculate how much of the burden each country should be bearing, based on its historical contribution to the cloud of greenhouse gases and its “capacity to pay”—a reflection of how rich the nation became during the fossil-fuel era. The report finds “that the US fair share of the global mitigation effort in 2030 is equivalent to a reduction of 195% below its 2005 emissions levels, reflecting a fair share range of 173-229%.” That is, we can’t meet our moral and practical burdens simply by reducing our own emissions; we’ve already put so much carbon into the air (and hence reduced the space that should rightly go to others) that we need to make amends. Of this hundred-and-ninety-five-per-cent reduction, Athanasiou says, seventy per cent would be made domestically, by building solar panels, rolling out electric cars, and insulating buildings. “This is about the maximum achievable by 2030, though cuts of this magnitude would require a full Green New Deal war footing,” he notes. ”The rest—the other 125%—would come by way of financial and tech support for adaptation and rapid decarbonization in poor and developing countries.”
For the past year, nations (and companies) have been announcing plans to reduce their emission levels to zero by mid-century. As Athanasiou says, that’s a welcome development, but, he adds, “Not one of these countries has made anything like an adequate move to support ambitious decarbonization and adaptation plans in the developing world. Or even, despite lots of talk, to significantly cut fossil subsidies. In fact, as I’m sure you know, a lot of the COVID recovery money has gone to the fossils.”
A country like Honduras has not used anything like its fair share of the planet’s carbon budget. By decarbonizing, it will be doing far more than its fair share—and it won’t be able to, unless countries like the United States help foot the bill. That is the only honorable, and only sensible, course: they don’t call it global warming for nothing, and you can’t control it anywhere without controlling it everywhere. Our political debate has poisoned the idea of foreign aid in recent years, and it will be a hard lift for the Biden Administration to come close to meeting the requirements of justice. But it won’t be as hard a lift as Blanca Costa is facing these next few years, pulling a trash cart without her horses.
Passing the Mic
Lynne Quarmby is a professor of molecular biology at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia. She is also a veteran of many environmental campaigns, and the author, most recently, of “Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear.” The title refers to the way that algal blooms can tint a snowpack pink. (Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I first saw watermelon snow high in the backcountry of Yosemite. What is it, and why should we be paying attention?
From spring through summer, single-celled algae grow on alpine and polar snow. In full bloom, the snow can look like watermelon flesh. White snow reflects solar radiation, whereas colored snow absorbs more of that energy, causing more melt and algal growth. Whether, on balance, the algae exacerbate global warming by absorbing heat, or mitigate it by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, we don’t yet know. The more pressing issue may be that algal blooms speed the melt of alpine snowpacks—freshwater reservoirs for many cities—spelling drought later in the season.
Under the microscope, the algae look like small jewels—diamond-encrusted rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. Together with the algae, we find rotifers, tardigrades, and ciliates, their bellies full of red cells; fungi with three arms; and slime, teeming with bacteria, archaea, and viruses. From microbial communities like these, we are learning that evolution is as much about coöperation as it is about competition. My concern is less about whether the algae are “good” or “bad” with respect to climate change than about the imminent extinction of this microscopic Serengeti.
You’ve been watching the Arctic, where the temperature is rising faster than anywhere else. What lessons should the world to the south be taking in?
Warm temperatures in the Arctic are disrupting the atmospheric and oceanic currents, which for ten thousand years reliably drove stable climate patterns. Driven by temperature differentials, atmospheric currents with altered speed and patterns impact climate—for example, the duration and intensity of droughts in North America. At the same time, the influx of cold freshwater from melting glaciers and ice caps is changing ocean currents in complex ways. In some cases, altered ocean currents are predicted to cause counterintuitive outcomes—for example, the cooling of northern Europe.
Changing ocean currents not only affect our climate but also impact the previously predictable circulation of nutrients. Organisms across the food web are facing increasing temperatures and changing patterns of nutrient availability throughout the world’s oceans. Finally, beyond the loss of habitat for ice algae and walruses, the shrinking of Arctic sea ice reduces the reflection of solar radiation and amplifies global warming.
And how do you keep from unproductive despair?
I have direct experience with unproductive despair. After several years of climate activism driven by fear, panic, and anger—two arrests, being sued by a pipeline giant, and a run for a seat in the Canadian Parliament—I was exhausted. After getting my job back on track, I found myself rested but still irritable, angry, and unable to engage with environmental issues. Finally, I recognized that I was suffering from a failure to grieve—a failure to acknowledge that, for many things I love, it is too late. By slowly opening myself to grief, I began to find some peace. The question became: How to live in this world with this knowledge? For me, living a fulfilling, satisfying life means engaging with others on issues that matter. I work on letting go of the old life—the decadence of a fossil-fuel-driven world—and embracing my personal vision of a better future. I sit with the grief, vigorously defend the truth, and engage in politics. It’s a good life.
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Crucial new numbers have been released on the so-called production gap. A consortium of researchers led by the Stockholm Environment Institute calculates that, to meet the temperature targets set in the Paris accord, “the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.”
Everyone’s after Joe Biden for a job, including the Australian former finance minister Mathias Cormann, who wants Biden’s support to become the next secretary-general of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Environmentalists down under are opposed: Cormann has been an apologist for Australia’s truly dismal climate action and took the stage at Davos this year to explain that “not every coal mine is a bad thing for the environment.”
With the remarkable news last month that the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, was shutting down the Line 5 oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac, attention shifted west to Minnesota, where Governor Tim Walz approved Line 3, a tar-sands pipeline heavily opposed by indigenous campaigners. Kendall Mackey, an organizer with 350.org (which I helped found) said to me that the Biden Administration could be asked to make the final call. “A new Administration could order an immediate pause on oil-pipeline construction and a moratorium on any new projects or expansion projects while they review Trump-era approvals for conflict or undue influence of industry,” she explained. Tara Houska, an indigenous campaigner who has been battling Line 3 for years, told the Intercept that “it is obvious on its face that this does not meet emissions standards—this does not meet our climate goals.” It’s particularly sad to see pipeline workers arriving in a state already suffering from a dire coronavirus surge.