By Bill McKibben, October 30 2020
In 1959, when humans began measuring the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, there was still some margin. That first instrument, set up on the side of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, showed that the air contained about three hundred and fifteen parts per million of CO2, up from two hundred and eighty p.p.m. before the Industrial Revolution. Worrisome, but not yet critical. In 1988, when the NASA scientist James Hansen first alerted the public to the climate crisis, that number had grown to three hundred and fifty p.p.m., which we’ve since learned is about the upper safe limit. Even then, though, we had a little margin, at least of time: the full effects of the heating had not yet begun to manifest in ways that altered our lives. If we’d acted swiftly, we could have limited the damage dramatically.
We didn’t, of course, and we have poured more carbon into the atmosphere since 1988 than in all the years before. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has topped four hundred and fifteen p.p.m.—that’s much too high, something that we know from a thousand indicators. Last week came the news that the Arctic is stubbornly refusing to refreeze at its normal rate as the long northern night descends.
The second biggest fire in Colorado history has closed Rocky Mountain National Park. California is white-knuckling its way through yet another siege of high winds in a record fire season that refuses to end. Tropical Storm Zeta formed in the Gulf of Mexico—and the next big storm will take us deeper into the Greek alphabet than we’ve ever gone before. And that’s just in the one per cent of the planet’s surface that’s covered by the continental United States.
It’s a lot worse in a lot of other places, because they lack the money that keeps us fairly resilient. In Vietnam this week, rainfall described as “extraordinarily out of the normal”—so heavy that “it far exceeded the government’s midrange predictions of how climate change might increase precipitation in central Vietnam by the end of this century”—has left more than a hundred people dead. “Everywhere we look, homes, roads, and infrastructure have been submerged,” the head of Vietnam’s Red Cross said.
We are out of space in the atmosphere, and we are out of time on the clock. The U.S. government, and the world, have done far too little on climate change, and so now we must move far faster than is comfortable or convenient. Plenty of pundits treated it as a “gaffe” when, in the last Presidential debate, Joe Biden said that we would need to “transition” away from oil. But that’s not a gaffe; it’s just the mildest sort of truth-telling. Because we’ve wasted so much time, that transition has to be sharp, and it has to be global. We are capable of doing it—the rapid fall in the price of renewable energy means that, if we wanted to go all out, we could make rapid progress. But this is not an offer that will last forever; indeed, it won’t last four more years.
In the famous story of the king who offered a reward to one of his advisers, the man asked for a single grain of wheat on the first square of a chessboard, and two on the next square, and four on the next, and, by the last doubling, he was due more wheat than would ever be grown on the planet. The climate is not changing exponentially—the accelerating linear growth in heating is bad enough—but the principle is the same. Long before you expect it, you run out of room. The entire climate debate has unfurled in real, living time—I was born the year after that first monitor went up on Mauna Loa. We think we always have time and space to change, but in this case we do not. If November 3rd doesn’t mark the start of a mighty effort at transformation, subsequent November Tuesdays will be less important, not more—our leverage will shrink, our chance at really affecting the outcome will diminish. This is it. Climate change “is the No. 1 issue facing humanity, and it’s the No. 1 issue for me,” Biden said in an interview on Saturday. With luck, we’ll get a chance to find out if the second half of that statement is true. The first half is already clear.
Passing the mic
Moira Birss, with whom I’ve worked on many fights (and who just wrote a fascinating piece about one of her relatives, the Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett), is the climate and finance director at the N.G.O. Amazon Watch. She has dedicated her career to human-rights and climate-justice advocacy, with a focus on supporting social movements in Latin America.
We see satellite pictures of smoke over the Amazon. What’s actually going on down on the ground to set these fires in motion?
The Amazon burning season has, unfortunately, become an annual phenomenon now greatly exacerbated by the policies of the current Brazilian President. Loggers and land grabbers work in tandem to plunder ancient trees; then they torch vast forests for the benefit of a handful of powerful agribusiness interests. The number of Amazon fires set in 2020 has already exceeded those set last year, and, while 2019’s notorious blazes mostly burned previously deforested areas, 2020’s fires are encroaching on primary forests.
The flames threatening the Amazon are as political and financial as they are physical. Since taking power, the Bolsonaro regime has worked to erase a generation of socio-environmental protections by slashing budgets, gutting institutions, and openly targeting communities that defend the rain forest. Violence, land invasions, arson, and illegal logging and mining have spiked on indigenous lands and other protected forests, driven by mafias whose actions are explicitly encouraged by Bolsonaro.
The rationale that underpins this behavior is that global consumers and investors will buy the Amazon’s conflict commodities no matter what.
How are corporations like Cargill, or asset managers like BlackRock, tied in to Amazon destruction?
Typically, cattle ranches operate for a few years after the forest is cleared by fire, then soy producers move in. Sometimes soy is the first product grown; a Brazilian study showed that soy-silo facilities of major U.S.-based commodity traders Cargill and Bunge overlapped with the epicenters of the 2019 fires.
Amazon destruction is not just an issue of forest loss but is inextricably linked to indigenous-rights abuses. Our new report documents how Cargill appears to have purchased soy from producers occupying a traditional indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon for which the indigenous community has tried to secure a land title.
BlackRock is the world’s largest money manager and, as such, holds shares in almost every publicly traded company in the world, including agribusiness companies operating in the Amazon. Despite paying lip service to the importance of environmental sustainability, BlackRock continues to be a major financier of climate-destroying industries around the world; the Amazon is no exception. Recent reports from Amazon Watch show it’s a top investor in companies linked to deforestation, fossil-fuel production, and indigenous-rights abuses in the Amazon rain forest.
Do their execs know what’s happening? Can they be shamed into stopping?
At Amazon Watch, we’re making sure the execs know what’s happening, both by communicating directly with leadership at these firms and by collaborating with other organizations and alliances to hold them accountable.
And it’s beginning to work! Already, we’ve seen dozens of financial firms (albeit not yet behemoths like BlackRock) threaten to withdraw investments from agribusiness companies if deforestation continues, and companies like the beef producer J.B.S. make new (albeit not strong enough) commitments to clean up supply chains.
We’ve also seen the behemoths start to shift, though still in insufficient ways. That’s why Amazon Watch and our partners in the BlackRock’s Big Problem campaign and the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition have been turning up the heat on BlackRock all year, and we’re starting to see results. In mid-October, BlackRock reversed a decade-long pattern of voting against climate-friendly shareholder resolutions by insisting that Procter & Gamble step up transparency efforts to address deforestation and forest degradation in its supply chains. This comes after sustained public pressure from activists across the world, and shows that we can shame them into stopping.
● For academics: a big new drive is under way to convince the pension giant T.I.A.A. to divest from fossil fuels. Why would one fund one’s retirement by investing in companies that guarantee that there won’t be a planet worth retiring on?
● I know that I’ve recommended more podcasts than one person can actually listen to, but: Debra Rienstra, a creative-writing and English professor at Michigan’s Calvin College, hosts “Refugia”, which explores the overlaps between Christianity and traditions ranging from indigenous spirituality to conservation biology—and looks for quiet spots where creatures, people included, might find some peace of mind.
● Few members of the U.S. Senate have been more forthright in addressing the climate crisis than Oregon’s Jeff Merkley. Last week, he introduced two new bills that would stop banks from investing in new fossil-fuel infrastructure and that would use America’s powerful position in international financial institutions, such as the I.M.F., to insure that they did likewise. “Fossil-fuel investments play a key role in accelerating climate chaos,” Merkley said, in a statement. “It’s time to prioritize the interests of the American people and the planet above the wishes of fossil-fuel C.E.O.s who want to hold our economy hostage.”
● Speaking of senators, the writer Kate Aronoff asks a very straightforward question: Why does Amazon set up a huge climate fund and then donate lots of money to the very politicians who will do what they can to make sure progress never happens?
● An important piece in the Boston Globe, by the Oxford physics professor Raymond Pierrehumbert, explains why “geoengineering” the planet to reduce its heat—probably by pumping yet more chemicals into the atmosphere—is a lousy idea. “The real showstopper is that the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuel burning—the chief cause of the climate crisis—persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” he writes. “In contrast, the particles created by solar climate interventions fall out of the sky after just a year or so.”
● The Trump campaign is not alone in figuring out how to use Facebook as a tool for spreading disinformation. Christine MacDonald, writing in In These Times, shows that ExxonMobil has “spent more than any other major corporation on ‘social issues, elections, or politics’ Facebook ads.” She details a particularly repugnant campaign to keep oil drilling alive in Santa Barbara, California, the site of the nineteen-sixties oil spill that helped inspire the first Earth Day.
● From Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, one of the country’s leading Muslim environmental activists, a five-point plan for fighting climate change. Point 3: “save what’s left in the natural world.” Along those lines, Team Biden last week reiterated plans to conserve thirty per cent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and Daniel Munczek Edelman, of Next100, explored the possibility for a climate equivalent of the thirties-era Civilian Conservation Corps. It would feature “a one- to two-year commitment, meaning that a Corps would be best positioned to deliver on short-term projects that don’t require significant upfront training. These might include native grassland and coastal ecosystem restoration; removal of invasive species and restoration of native species; improving wildlife corridors; building hiking trails and other recreational wilderness amenities; irrigation system repair; disaster preparedness work.”
● Noam Chomsky, at the age of ninety-one, is reminding people to vote, and not for third parties. He points out that even a Trump Administration environmental assessment says that the world is heading for a four-degree Celsius rise in temperature. “What is that? Total cataclysm. No one can even estimate the effects. Organized human life as we know it will be over.”
● Check out these entries for the Royal Meteorological Society’s 2020 weather photograph of the year. A gorgeous planet, now in violent flux.