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What Will It Take to Cool the Planet?

This week’s newsletter is a little different, in that I mainly want to encourage you to watch a video and then play with a Web site. Both come from the remarkable people at Climate Interactive, a project that grew out of M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management. I’ve admired the group’s co-directors, Elizabeth Sawin and Andrew Jones, for many years, and watched their En-ROADS simulator grow from fairly crude beginnings into a truly sophisticated and useful model. It allows you to change different variables to see what it would take to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to get us off our current impossible track (screeching toward a world something like four degrees Celsius hotter) and onto the merely miserable heading of 1.5 to two degrees Celsius envisioned in the Paris climate accords.

I pointed out last week that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us something interesting: even locking down most of the planet didn’t cut emissions as much as we might have thought. (By early April, daily carbon-dioxide emissions decreased by seventeen per cent.) This suggests that a great percentage of the trouble is hardwired into our systems, and not solely a function of our habits and choices. Indeed, the simulator shows that, if you reduce the growth of both populations and economies to the lowest level the programmers considered possible, the planet still warms almost 3.5 degrees Celsius.

But now reset the variables and go into the submenus for coal, gas, and oil, and perform a little experiment: stop building any new infrastructure for these fossil fuels beginning in 2025 and, all of a sudden, you’re at a world that warms only 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s why it is such good news, for instance, that New York State last week quashed plans for the Williams natural-gas pipeline across the New York City harbor: if you keep building stuff like this now, it locks in emissions for decades to come, busting our carbon budget. It’s why the climate movement has fought so hard against pipelines and fracking wells and L.N.G. terminals: with ever-cheaper renewable power, when you manage to stop such projects, sun and wind have a chance at filling the vacuum.

And, once you’ve made this basic course change, you can go back to work on other steps that the simulator can model. Stipulate an all-out effort at making buildings and transport more efficient, and cut way back on deforestation—and now you’re at about 2.5 degrees. Figure out some ways to “highly reduce” methane emissions from oil and gas wells, cows, and other sources, and suddenly you’re nearing the two-degree mark.

None of these things are easy, of course. In fact, all of them are very hard. But stopping new infrastructure is possible—it’s basically a battle with the fossil-fuel industry, which, as I’ve been pointing out, is losing financial muscle with each passing week. Last week, according to the Financial Times, in a fascinating interview with Bernard Looney, the C.E.O. of BP, “Looney noted that as crude prices have plunged, renewable energy projects had been able to attract funding, suggesting the pandemic has weakened the investment case for oil. ‘It’s the model that is increasingly respected and admired by investors as being resilient and having a different risk profile,’ he said.”

Passing the Mic

Bernadette Demientieff is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which has been coördinating that First Nation’s fight against plans for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She’s spent much of the past few years visiting with representatives of major banks and asking them not to finance the project, because it would damage the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and, as a consequence, her community’s way of life. And she’s been successful: among the six biggest American banks, only Bank of America has not agreed to the Gwich’ins’ request.

Could you tell us what the Arctic Refuge is like this time of year—has spring begun to reach the far north?

I would be honored to share the true beauty of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. This place right now would be melting and summer on the rise. Animals coming out and appearing all over. Creeks and lakes starting to form beautifully. It’s like nature slowly waking up.

Bank after bank has agreed not to fund drilling in the Arctic these past months. Do you think that will make a difference?

We have been visiting these banks for the past two years, and it was really heartfelt to see that many of them made a commitment to withdraw from going into the Arctic Refuge. Our human rights are being violated, and we will not sit by quietly and allow this to happen.

What do you think people don’t understand about this fight—what message would you most like to get across?

Many people are not aware that this is not just about protecting our polar bears but this is about the indigenous voices being ignored, this is about a whole identity, about a people’s entire way of life being destroyed for profit. We have a spiritual and cultural connection to the Porcupine caribou herd, and we will stand strong in unity for the protection of their calving grounds and the Gwich’in way of life. We are rich in our culture, we are rich in our way of life. Look out across this country and understand this is a prime example of why we continue to fight for protection of these places. These lands, these waters, these animals are our survival.

Many of us will be O.K., because we are survivors, but we don’t only think about ourselves or our people. We think about our human race and all the many American people who deserve a chance at survival. We stand up for our future generations, the ones that do not have a voice yet, and we carry on “in a good way” the love, kindness, and strength of our ancestors.

Climate School

The climate campaigner Jamie Henn—an old colleague—wrote a provocative piece for Common Dreams last week arguing that environmentalists need to do a better job of describing the future world they’d like to build. If Fox News says that the Green New Deal is all about taking away hamburgers, Green New Dealers should respond with a vision of a “cleaner, healthier, freer, fun-er new world. A world where we aren’t choking on smog and exhaust. Where you don’t have to worry about gas leaks or expensive water bills. Where there’s no oil to change, no gaskets to replace, maybe even no car to worry about, because you’ve got a sexy electric bike and free, all-electric transit is just a block or two away.”

For Future Tense (a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University), David Zipper argues persuasively that cities have a short window—perhaps measured in weeks—to break the reflexive habit of driving cars. The nightmare is that subway-leery commuters will soon be driving. “A recent Vanderbilt study found that Bay Area residents could soon spend an additional 20 to 80 minutes per day stuck in congestion due to a shift away from mass transit. Evidence from China, which is attempting to return to life as usual following extended coronavirus lockdowns, is ominous: In early April, cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou already had higher levels of rush hour congestion than a year ago.” The dream looks like—well, like these survey results from the U.K., which found that six out of ten Brits want their government to prioritize health and well-being over economic growth even after the pandemic subsides. Doubtless that’s why London continues to amaze with its plans to turn the city center into a zone for bikes, buses, scooters, and pedestrians. In a sign of the times, the staid Financial Times offers a guide for first-time bike buyers.



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