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A weekly reckoning with our heated planet—and the fight to save it

Fixing American Farming Shouldn’t Be a Tough Sell

A sustainable food system could be worth up to $10 trillion a year. Meanwhile, Congress can’t even pass a new version of the farm bill.

An aerial view of grape vines surrounded by parched soil
Drip irrigation at a farm in Fresno, California, where ongoing drought presents a serious challenge, in July 2021.

As The Guardian reported this week, the benefits of switching to a more sustainable food system could be astronomical: worth up to $10 trillion per year. Currently, the “unaccounted costs” of our global food systems come to about $15 trillion a year, meaning “our food systems are destroying more value than they create,” according to the Food System Economic Commission’s Global Policy report, which released its economic modeling on Monday. This is a fixable problem: We could move toward greater food security while reducing emissions and promoting biodiversity, and it would cost only a fraction ($200–$500 billion, i.e., around 5 percent) of the benefits that reform would generate. But the policy proposals that are currently on the table won’t get us there.

Sustainable agriculture experts may disagree on the precise proposals modeled by this report, which pairs relatively uncontroversial ideas (like conserving water, forests, and peatlands) with more hotly debated ones (like intensifying animal agriculture in some locations and getting comfortable with higher food prices). But few people really dispute that our current food systems need reform, whether globally or closer to home: From the multitudinous environmental, epidemiological, and ethical problems of meat production to toxic runoff and poor land use, to suicidal farmers and systematically exploited agricultural workers, to imminent water crises, American agriculture is way past the point where a rational observer would fail to see the glaring need for reform.

The Guardian’s report on the new economic modeling isn’t the only recent headline pointing to the crisis. Avian flu is also back in the news, spreading among poultry farms in California and leading to over a million birds being euthanized—all while the virus also makes devastating inroads into vulnerable wildlife populations in Antarctica. The virus was found in Antarctic seal populations earlier this month, and this week testing confirmed that the strain has moved to gentoo penguins, leaving over 200 penguin chicks dead, according to Reuters. Recent research has shown that while wild birds can and do spread the disease, it originated in an agricultural setting and spreads rapidly in poultry farms. And while some policymakers are apt to blame bird flu on Chinese agricultural practices, since the first cases were found in Southern China, it bears repeating that the United States has historically been and remains a conspicuous hot spot for swine flu.

Meanwhile, states relying on water from the rapidly drying Colorado River are “racing,” per The New York Times’ Christopher Flavelle, to agree on new water cuts before a possible change in presidential administrations leads to more bureaucratic delays. The vast majority of Colorado River water currently goes to agriculture, and, as E&E News’s Jennifer Yachnin observed this week, “ninety percent of this country’s winter vegetables are grown on farms in the sunny, arid corners of California and Arizona dependent on the river”—a figure that should trouble people worried about food security.

The recent Iowa caucus also offered a reminder, Tom Philpott recently wrote here at TNR, that absolutely all of the 2024 Republican and Democratic candidates support ethanol subsidies—despite the fact that ethanol is a wildly inefficient use of land. “We devote about 30 million acres of pristine farmland—an area the size of Virginia—to growing fuel for our cars,” Tom wrote, when solar panels could accomplish the same in vastly less space. Corn farming also leads to both erosion and rampant water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.

All of which is to say that it’s a heck of a time for Congress to remain stuck in gridlock, unable to pass a new version of the farm bill—which, in case you’ve forgotten, also controls access to the country’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food stamps. Lawmakers were supposed to figure something out by October 1, and now negotiations are taking place in an election year. Naturally, a new version of the farm bill won’t be enough to fix American agriculture’s problems. But those concerned about the environment, food security, and inequality in this country will be watching these negotiations closely. Tweaks at the margins could affect a huge number of people and ecosystems—both in the U.S. and far beyond.

Good News/Bad News

The United Kingdom’s National Trust has launched a tree-planting program in an attempt to extend one of the last remaining patches of the country’s ancient temperate rainforest and resurrect some of its historic range.

Investigative outfit DeSmog has found yet more evidence that oil companies knew about climate change as early as the 1950s.

Stat of the Week
> 200

That’s how many rail cars filled with vinyl chloride—the carcinogenic chemical that spilled during the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last year—continue to move across the country and through densely populated areas each day, according to a new report. The Washington Post notes in its write-up that Republican senators are resisting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt even to study the risks of vinyl chloride, denouncing it as a “war on plastic.”

What I’m Reading

Democrats Say Biden Hasn’t “Made the Case” on Climate Despite Achievements

Buried under the election-year analysis in the first half of this piece is a beautiful and important insight about what actually motivates people to care about climate policy:

“Like I said: When I hear climate, I think jobs,” Mr. Biden said. It is a line he has repeated in multiple settings.

Some data suggests that might not be the winning message.

One of the biggest climate marketing studies of its kind, a public opinion poll across the United States and 18 other countries that was conducted last summer, found that “protecting the planet for the next generation” overwhelmingly beats out other arguments for taking climate action. Researchers found the so-called “urgent generational message” was 12 times more popular than the promise of creating jobs.

“At the heart of this is love,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which conducted the study with other nonprofit groups including Potential Energy Coalition, the Meliore Foundation and Zero Ideas.

“People love particular people, places and things,” Mr. Leiserowitz said. “And those people, places and things are being threatened.”

Read Lisa Friedman’s full report at The New York Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

How Fishing Releases Huge Amounts of Carbon Dioxide

A new study shows bottom trawling isn’t just destructive to wildlife along the ocean floor.

A person stands on a boat in the middle of the water holding onto a net that is hoisted above him.
NurPhoto/Getty Images
A fisherman repairing nets after trawling in the Port of Molfetta, Italy

Coal, steaks, gas stoves, and … halibut? You have to wonder how far off we are from a new climate culture war breaking out over the fishing industry. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, a suit from a herring fishing company challenging the government’s authority to force the industry to pay for federal monitors on boats. The case is widely expected to end with the justices gutting the power of federal agencies to interpret congressional statutes—and to set and enforce regulations accordingly—by overturning Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a landmark 1984 decision that affirmed that power.

Also last week, a new study showed that the fishing industry—and bottom trawling in particular—is a strikingly overlooked source of greenhouse gas emissions. We already knew this was a possibility: In 2021, an international team of researchers published a study finding that trawling—in which fishing ships drag nets outfitted with metal panels across the ocean floor to catch seafood like flounder, shrimp, and haddock—releases about a gigaton of carbon dioxide previously stored in the seabed into the water each year. That’s “as much carbon dioxide as the entire aviation industry,” The Guardian pointed out at the time. Carbon dioxide released into the ocean acidifies the water, which can threaten sea life—not just coral and shellfish but also the overall balance of the ecosystem.

Last week, a team that included four of the same researchers published a follow-up: In addition to the acidification effect, over half of that carbon dioxide is then released into the atmosphere “over 7-9 years.” While Enric Sala, one of the authors, acknowledged in National Geographic that this is “small compared to the emissions produced by burning fossil fuels on the land,” the same article noted that this means the effect from bottom trawling “is nearly double the annual emissions from fuel combustion for the entire global fishing fleet.”

That’s for a practice that everyone knew was environmentally catastrophic to begin with. To quote the U.S. Geological Survey: “Trawling destroys the natural seafloor habitat by essentially rototilling the seabed,” destroying an astonishing array of plants and animals as it does so, from coral and other inhabitants of the seafloor to pilot whales and dolphins.

Bottom trawling is restricted in a lot of U.S. waters. But it’s not banned entirely. And while the United States, according to a 2021 report from Flora and Fauna International, accounts for just 4 percent of trawl catch worldwide—well behind China, at nearly 15 percent, and Vietnam, at a little over 8 percent—it’s also a country whose fishing industry shouldn’t, in theory, be particularly dependent on the practice, since bottom trawling accounts for a relatively low percentage of its total fishing haul.

That raises the question of whether policymakers might consider further protections, or even an outright ban. These studies aren’t undisputed, of course—few early studies are. And if Loper Bright v. Raimondo winds up destroying the administrative state, all kinds of environmental protections could get a lot harder. But this finding may prompt policymakers to reexamine the topic, which will doubtless provoke the ire of the fishing industry.

This time last year, a stray comment about regulating gas stoves, which emit greenhouse gases in addition to lung irritants and carcinogens, sparked a bizarre frenzy among right-wingers eager to defend the asthma-linked devices from liberal interference. Panicked posturing over red meat is practically a seasonal sport in American politics. And almost anything can happen in a campaign year. If a candidate brandishes a flounder during a stump speech in a few months, well … that would be about par for the course.

Good News/Bad News

Recycling rare earth metals could go a long way toward meeting the increasing demand for them for clean energy technology, a new study suggests.

The American Petroleum Institute has launched an eight-figure ad campaign, The Guardian’s Dharna Noor reports, to convince Americans that the fossil fuel industry is decarbonizing on its own and that fossil fuels are crucial for the nation’s security and way of life.

Stat of the Week

3 percentage points

That’s the margin by which Donald Trump might have won the 2020 election, if voters’ feelings on climate change had stayed as they were in 2016, according to new statistical modeling. Instead, the number of people rating climate change as “very important” grew, and Joe Biden won climate-concerned voters across the political spectrum by 75 points. Read Anthropocene magazine’s story on this study.

What I’m Reading

The dubious climate gains of turning soil into a carbon sink

Regenerative agriculture techniques, including less tilling and increased use of cover crops, are a good idea for many reasons, Susannah Savage reports. “But the carbon angle has been oversold,” according to Pete Smith, a soil expert at the University of Aberdeen:

There are more serious flaws with soil sequestration than the lack of a clear definition. One is its capacity; research by Smith, working with other academics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, recently looked at carbon captured in grassland soils and calculated that some 135 gigatonnes of carbon would be required to offset emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from the grazing livestock sector. That is almost twice the carbon currently contained in managed grasslands. In some regions, carbon stocks would need to increase by 2,000 per cent to offset emissions from livestock farming.

Carbon capture in soils has been promoted by the livestock industry as “a get out of jail free card”, says Smith. “‘Yes, we’re producing methane emissions … but no need to worry about it, the soils will offset all the emissions’. This [study] is the nail in the coffin of that argument.”

Read Susannah Strange’s report at Financial Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Optimistic Climate Report That Might Be Too Good to Be True

Journalists hailed it as proof that we can grow the economy while cutting emissions. But between the lines, there’s a different story.

A cow standing among other cows looks at the camera.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
A dairy farm in Porterville, California

A funny thing happened last week. A climate report revealed genuinely good news about U.S. emissions. Or did it?

“U.S. Carbon Emissions Fell in 2023 as Coal Use Tumbled to New Lows,” The New York Times reported. “The falling emissions, driven largely by retirements of dirty, coal-fired power plants, put U.S. climate pollution at its lowest level since 1991,” CNN added. NBC’s headline was cautious—“Good news, bad news: U.S. emissions shrank last year, but very slowly”—but the lede was more optimistic: “Carbon emissions shrank in 2023 even as the economy grew, a sign the U.S. is plodding toward a more sustainable future.”

That was the takeaway of a lot of the coverage. As Robinson Meyer of Heatmap wrote, “It’s the first time since the pandemic began that the American economy has, as the phrase goes, ‘decoupled’—experienced an expanding economy and falling emissions at the same time.” These articles acknowledged that progress remains troublingly slow—the pace isn’t enough to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement—but characterized the report as proof that we can grow the economy while reducing emissions.

Not so fast. It really depends on what part of the Rhodium report you look at. To quote the summary itself: “This decline in emissions was driven by an 8% drop in emissions in the power sector and a 4% drop from residential and commercial buildings.… In the transportation sector, the highest-emitting sector, emissions rose by 1.6% from 2022 levels, and in the industrial sector, the second highest-emitting sector, there was a 1% increase in emissions.” That’s a little less encouraging.

Consider the 4 percent decrease from buildings. How’d that happen? “In the buildings sector, a milder-than-average winter reduced fuel demand and led to lower overall emissions, since the majority of homes still rely on natural gas, fuel oil, and propane for space heating.” This is a tough one to know how to evaluate. On the one hand, any drop in emissions is good, in that it strictly adds less to the total emissions budget. On the other hand, another way of phrasing this would be to say we reduced emissions by warming the world enough that it was a mild winter, which, given that our buildings still rely on fossil fuels, reduced emissions. That is not a pattern we want to repeat ad infinitum, expecting further success; there are, after all, some knock-on effects from warmer winters, including water crises, ecosystem and agricultural instability, and hotter summers (which can also lead to increased fuel consumption).

Then there’s the power sector. Coal declining is doubtless good news, not just for greenhouse gas emissions but also for human health. But the report also says that “natural gas generation grew more than twice as fast as renewable generation did, year-on-year.” And wind turbine installation rates actually seem to be declining relative to 2021 levels. Meanwhile, the report continues, “the U.S. is on track for record dry gas production in 2023, and crude oil production looks to rival if not exceed 2019 record levels as well.”

And then there’s the other big asterisk. “The researchers looked at planet-warming emissions generated by transportation, electricity, industry and buildings,” The New York Times noted, “but did not include pollution from agriculture, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases.”

There’s little reason to think that U.S. agricultural emissions have gone down. In fact, we already know that agricultural emissions can rise while others fall, because that seems to be what happened in 2020, when Covid hit. Between 1990 and 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture increased by 16.2 percent, methane emissions increased by 15.7 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions increased by 3.7 percent. And emissions specifically from enteric fermentation—i.e., from the guts of the animals producing red meat and dairy—have increased 7.2 percent over roughly the same period.

None of this is to say that the way the Rhodium findings are being reported is wrong. The top-line summaries, however, emphasize the progress rather than the more troubling signs. Even with all the caveats, Meyer writes, “the analysis nonetheless shows that climate progress in the U.S. is holding its own, just as the Inflation Reduction Act and new Environmental Protection Agency rules are set to kick in in years to come.”

I struggle to match that optimism. None of the sectors where emissions have likely increased are easy to reform, from a political perspective. The sectors where emissions did decrease may not maintain those reductions. Then too, it’s hard to ignore other headlines coming out this week that may have a significant effect on these trends going forward. Hot (so to speak) on the heels of former President Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucus, a poll released Tuesday showed Trump leading Biden 45–37 percent in the key state of Georgia. That same day, Politico reported that team Trump may “show less restraint” in a second term than in his first when it comes to gutting environmental protections and climate policy. That’s in part due to the influence of Project 2025, a policy draft put together by conservative groups for “Day One.” (You can read about Project 2025 and its implications for climate, trans rights, schools, and more in TNR’s extensive coverage of the plan.)

Time will tell how this report from the Rhodium Group ages. It’s a frustrating feature of climate coverage that one of the most important factors in evaluating the meaning of emissions reports often isn’t the climate or emissions data itself but rather the crystal-ball vagaries of American politics. The climate-funding progress of the past few years is real. But the IRA is a law—and an imperfect one, at that. It’s not destiny.

Good News/Bad News

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports a “remarkable number” of juvenile oysters in the Chesapeake Bay—more than they’ve seen “in a generation.” Oysters not only contribute to the seafood industry but also filter water, making their populations crucial to waterway restoration.

Wildlife groups have long warned that further construction of barriers between the United States and Mexico would have dire effects, not just for humans but for other species as well. The Guardian now reports that “more than 100 wild animals … were killed in a wildfire in Texas last summer, after becoming trapped behind the concrete border wall.”

Stat of the Week
11,000 pieces

That’s possibly the average microplastic ingestion of an American adult each year, according to a profoundly disturbing piece from The Washington Post on microplastics in food.

What I’m Reading

Fossil Fuel Corporations Are Faking Grassroots Support

Fossil fuel companies have used insights on consumer trust from P.R. firm Edelman to “turn workers into a positive public face for fossil fuels, obscuring the role of the profit-hungry executives who actually pull the strings,” Adam M. Lowenstein reports. The strategy has proven politically profitable.

“Energy Citizens,” an ultimately successful astroturf campaign launched by the American Petroleum Institute while Edelman was the organization’s single largest contractor, hewed closely to Edelman’s proprietary insights about trust. The effectiveness of Energy Citizens, which involved making oil and gas workers the “human face” of the fossil fuel industry to create the impression of widespread grassroots support, contributed to the defeat of US climate legislation in 2010.…

According to Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, such examples illustrate how Edelman has used its insights—under the guise of studying public trust—to help the fossil fuel industry fight climate action. “When Edelman finds that engagement from employees and ‘people like me’ is an important part of developing trust in corporations, you immediately see those tactics being deployed on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute and companies like TransCanada,” said Meisel.

Read Adam M. Lowenstein’s report at Jacobin.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

It’s Go Time for the Biden Administration

Biden has a lot of climate policies to push through before the election potentially ends his presidency.

Biden climbs steps to Air Force One, with a clouded sky in the background.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One

“Time is running out” is a strange sentence. It’s always true (shush, physicists—I mean from the human perspective), and yet it’s always anxiety-inducing. It’s perfectly calibrated to make the human brain tune out whatever comes next. Time’s running out for me to do it? Great, don’t tell me what it is! I don’t want to know! I’ve practically missed the chance already!

Yet time really is running out if the Biden administration means to fulfill its promises to counter climate change and environmental degradation. The climate clock is ticking: Data released Tuesday by the Copernicus Climate Change Service showed that world average temperatures reached 1.48 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in 2023—shockingly close to the 1.5 degree limit (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The political clock is ticking, as well: With November’s election looming, it’s far from certain that Biden will prevail over the likely Republican nominee, former president and current four-case criminal defendant Donald Trump. If Trump wins, he’s likely to re-withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement and gut environmental protections—a process that could be further abetted by a Republican Congress.

The theme in last week’s newsletter was hope. Hope certainly hasn’t run out. As The Guardian’s Damian Carrington reminded readers this week, while the Copernicus Climate Change Service expects us to hit the 1.5 degree mark in the next year, climate scientists won’t consider the target definitively smashed until temperatures are “consistently above 1.5 degrees Celsius.” And as I emphasized last week, even if we cross that milestone, “every fraction of a degree,” in the words of U.N. climate scientist Jim Skea, will matter. Each of those fractions of a degree will be a major victory counted in lives, livelihoods, species, and communities saved.

It is, however, time to get ruthlessly practical about the next 12 months. TNR’s Kate Aronoff has outlined a to-do list for the Biden administration—not just to get reelected but also to finalize a large number of environmental rules so that it will be harder for Republicans to roll them back. As you may recall, the Trump administration did just about everything it could to set fire to the environment on its way out the door in 2020, finalizing more than two dozen new giveaways to fossil fuel companies and curtailments of existing environmental policies, during the period between Trump losing the election and Inauguration Day. Biden’s administration might want to take this time to be just as industrious as his predecessor was in wrecking the planet, and protect as much of it as he can in the months that remain.

In a new piece published Wednesday, Kate adds another key item to the to-do list:

The Department of Justice prosecuted fewer corporations in fiscal year 2022 than at any point since 1994, per an analysis published by the watchdog group Public Citizen in October. The overwhelming majority of corporations it did prosecute (81 percent) had fewer than 50 employees, according to the department’s annual report; just 7 percent had more than 1,000. By its own estimation, enforcement efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency reduced, treated, or eliminated fewer pollutants than such efforts have at any point in the last decade. Also in fiscal year 2023, which started in October 2022, the EPA charged fewer criminal defendants than it has at any point in the last decade.

While EPA enforcements increased last year, “the bar for improvement,” Kate wrote, “was shockingly low.… In fiscal year 2022, EPA civil enforcement cases plummeted to their lowest levels in 22 years, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project. Jail time for criminal defendants reached an all-time low. Fewer criminal cases were opened in 2022 than at any point since 1992.” While there are demonstrable reasons for that—such as the sharp reduction in agency staff under the Trump administration and stinginess from Congress—there’s a limited amount of time to enforce existing rules before a combination of Supreme Court decisions and elections could make those agencies’ tasks much, much harder.

At the governmental level, policy is about how one uses the time that one has. Politics is about buying more of it. The latter typically outweighs the former in an election year. But if Biden believes, as he has previously stated, that climate change is “literally an existential threat,” his administration is going to have to go full-out in the next 12 months to pursue both.

Good News/Bad News

In a nice break from more villainous tech stories, “a team of beaver scientists and Google engineers have been teaching an algorithm to spot the rodents’ infrastructure on satellite images,” reports Ben Goldfarb at Mother Jones. Beavers do a lot of cool things for the environment, and scientists hope to learn more about that from this A.I. effort. Read the full piece: It’s packed with amusing tidbits like A.I. thinking pavement cul-de-sacs are beaver ponds.

Fuel efficiency for new cars seems to be stalled, largely because of the American love affair with SUVs.

Stat of the Week

That’s the number of billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023. You guessed it: It’s a record. No year going back to the beginning of data collection in 1980, and adjusting for inflation, has seen that many billion-dollar extreme weather events.

What I’m Reading

The war zone in Gaza will leave a legacy of hidden health risks

The Israeli government’s massive months-long assault on Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’s October 7 attacks has already killed a staggering number of people. But as Saqib Rahim reports for Grist, the death toll could rise dramatically even if a cease-fire began tomorrow. Pulverizing this many buildings has surely released toxic debris into the air, including asbestos in some cases. And that’s to say nothing of other environmental degradation:

Systematic research after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States was among the first to link exposure to such a mix of detritus to pulmonary and respiratory disease and cancer.… In principle, making post-conflict zones livable again requires rigorous field sampling, remediation of pollution hotspots, and health surveillance to watch for disease trends. In practice, these things usually get skipped in the exhaustion that follows hostilities …

Without ground access to Gaza, observers are relying on remote sensing and publicly available information to measure environmental impacts to the Strip. Using satellite analysis, He Yin, an assistant professor of geography at Kent State University, reckons the fighting has damaged 15 to 29 percent of Gaza’s arable land. The PAX report identifies a plume of black smoke from a soda factory, suggesting burning plastics, and heavy damage at an industrial campus that makes pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, plastics and other chemical goods. In November, the New York Times observed a huge fire at a water-treatment plant, a frightening development in one of the most water-stressed places in the world.

Read Saqib Rahim’s full report at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

How to Be Hopeful Going Into 2024

Optimism seems to be a theme in climate coverage. But what does productive optimism look like?

A protester dressed as a snowman holds a sign reading "Stop Global Warming."
Erik McGregor/Getty Images
A protest in New York City in September

Twenty-one species were finally, after much deliberation, declared extinct in the United States last year. Only 11 other species had been declared extinct in the prior half-century. 2023 was the warmest year ever recorded for Earth’s average temperature. Some researchers think 2024 could be worse. The Biden administration made $382 million auctioning off oil-drilling leases on December 20—part of record oil production on Democrats’ watch. By the end of 2024, the country could be preparing for another Trump presidency—likely gutting environmental protections and re-withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

Yet perhaps counterintuitively, an emerging theme as 2023 closed out and made way for 2024 was that of hope. “Here’s How Bad Climate Change Will Get in the U.S.—and Why There’s Still Hope,” was how Wired announced the results of the Fifth National Climate Assessment in November. “Hope is a discipline,” declared one Guardian headline published New Year’s Eve atop an interview with Nathan Baring, one of the young plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for having “willfully ignored” warnings about fossil fuels. (The case was filed in 2015 and still hasn’t gone to trial.) And then there’s Hannah Ritchie’s book Not the End of the World, being released next week to notable press interest. Ritchie argues in interviews in The New York Times and The Guardian this week that, while “it has been an incredibly bad year,” we’ve made more progress than we sometimes acknowledge on climate change, and reframing existential dread as “How can I try to contribute to accelerating the good outpacing the bad?” may be more productive.

Hope is a good thing. Climate “doomerism,” numerous writers have pointed out, is destructive—giving people the false sense that there’s nothing left to fight for, when in reality “every fraction of a degree” matters for communities, species, food systems, and livelihoods. To put it another way: As a practical matter it’s hard for humans to mobilize at either an individual or a collective level when they feel hopeless, and as a scientific matter, portraying the future as a dead-end done deal isn’t accurate.

Hope is searingly politically relevant, and also complicated: The politics of hope run directly counter to the politics of fear, which have a track record of empowering regressive nationalist and racist movements. But hope can also be abused. There is a rich history among rich nations of pushing fossil fuel phaseout ever further into the future, hoping that unproven or unscalable technological solutions will suck carbon out of the air and take care of the problem for us.

Nor can hope alone, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff argued in a vital piece last spring, be expected to fix our dysfunctional climate politics:

On one hand, it’s understandable that climate advocates would think about the best way to communicate about climate change. On the other, fixating on finding the perfect tone for climate communication mistakes messaging and mindset for a theory of change. Getting off fossil fuels requires replacing the lifeblood of capitalism on a stunningly quick timeline, and replacing it with alternatives just now coming into their own. Doing that isn’t so much an issue of pessimism or optimism but of political economy…. The reason there is now a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” per the latest IPCC report, isn’t because some ill-defined mass of climate-concerned people has been insufficiently hopeful in public. It’s because the people who want to pass adequate climate policies have significantly less power and money than the people who want to obstruct such policies.

This last sentence points to another thing worth remembering: Hope probably shouldn’t be used as a substitute for accountability. A lot of companies have made a lot of money cooking the planet. They knew they were doing it, and they funded misinformation campaigns to keep citizens and their governments from intervening to stop them. And while one could argue that fixating on blame can be counterproductive, naming and blaming could be very helpful if it means people stop wanting to be associated with or do the lobbying and marketing for the entities that got us here. Cultural shifts are important for political change. Then, too, the money needed to save the world has to come from somewhere: Making major polluters pay to clean up the mess is a good start.

As we begin the new year, I like reading these hopeful pieces. I also wonder how they will age: whether editors like me will be greenlighting hopeful pieces a year from now or whether the prospect of a second Trump administration will blitz all this climate discourse into oblivion. Hope doesn’t mean a lot without action, and the precise causal relationship between the two can be tricky to unpack (as a multitude of widely circulated aphorisms attest). Let’s hope 2024 goes well. Let’s not count on it.

Good News/Bad News

Electric vehicles just got more affordable: You can now get instant rebates on electric vehicles rather than waiting until tax-filing time, thanks to a change in federal incentives that took effect this week.

The Great Lakes came into 2024 with the least amount of ice they’ve had in 50 years.

Stat of the Week

305 days

… until Election Day 2024, the outcome of which could have a gargantuan
effect on U.S. climate policy, emissions, and climate change around the world.

What I’m Reading

Strawberry Case Study: What If Farmers Had to Pay for Water?

The fees levied on irrigation in California’s bountiful Pajaro Valley are working, offering hope that similar systems could help address the West’s water crisis, as well as water crises across the U.S. and in fact all over the globe.

Experts from as far away as China and Egypt are traveling to the valley to study the system. But replicating it elsewhere could face major challenges. For one thing, “People don’t like taxes,” said Nicholas Brozovic, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska. “There’s nothing mysterious about that.”

New research on the program revealed a direct connection between paying for the groundwater and conserving it: A 20 percent increase in the price of groundwater has resulted in a 20 percent decrease in the extraction of groundwater.

One reason experts see Pajaro as a model: Despite the high price of water, agriculture in the region is thriving.

Read Coral Davenport’s report at The New York Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Good, the Bad, and the Most Important Climate Lesson of 2023

Amid hopeful developments and worrisome ones, there’s one big theme.

A grey wolf looks into the camera.
Jason Connolly/Getty Images
A wolf at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. Colorado Parks and Wildlife began reintroducing wolves to designated areas this week.

Climate coverage is often caricatured as being a deluge of bad news. The truth is more complicated. While 2023 certainly had its fair share of frightening developments, there were also signs of hope. And some of the bad news came with a silver lining: It highlighted systems that, in theory, should be really easy to fix.

The Good

After a rough start to the year—including new drilling projects—climate campaigners claimed a massive victory in New York state with the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act, which requires the public New York Power Authority to build its own renewables projects if the private sector fails to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030. Getting the bill passed was a “multiyear, mammoth effort,” TNR’s Kate Aronoff noted in May. The proposal had already failed in prior legislative sessions, but the New York City Democratic Socialists of America mounted primary challenges against any incumbent Democrat they deemed insufficiently supportive of the bill. And despite the sometimes shaky rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act, Kate explained, the Biden administration’s signature climate legislation helped the BPRA prevail at last by allowing public utilities to take advantage of tax breaks for renewables.

This may sound like a development only relevant to a single state. But the BPRA’s influence, Liza Featherstone argued, could extend well beyond New York’s borders. The law, she wrote, “could potentially be the boldest challenge yet to the fossil fuel industry. That’s because of the principle it establishes: that the state should be empowered to provide clean energy if the private sector fails to.”

In September, the Biden administration announced plans to create an “American Climate Corps,” employing people in conservation, resilience, clean energy, and other projects. “According to a source familiar with the design of the program,” Kate reported, “the first jobs will likely start hiring next summer or early fall. The White House has set a goal of employing 20,000 people in the first year.”

Also this fall, the United Auto Workers prevailed in getting General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis to include electric vehicle battery manufacturers in their bargaining unit. That may seem somewhat orthogonal to the issue of climate change, but, as Liza argued, it could have long-lasting political ramifications, like “ending the culture war on electric vehicles and robbing the Republicans of anti-climate talking points.”

The Bad

I’m not going to try to recap all the studies that came out this year with dire prognoses—including several suggesting that global warming and polar melting and species extinction are proceeding faster than expected. If you read this newsletter, you’ve seen them already. The real question is how to respond to all this.

The Inflation Reduction Act is clearly working in some ways, even if it can’t stimulate the notoriously difficult offshore wind market the way people had hoped. “Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending renewables will achieve a level of self-sufficiency that has never been demanded of coal, oil, and gas,” Kate suggested earlier this year. The bigger problem for the long-term future of climate policy, she argued in a separate piece, is that a lot of people don’t seem to know that the IRA is working:

A Washington Post–University of Maryland poll conducted in mid-July found that 57 percent of Americans disapprove of [Biden’s] handling of climate change; 71 percent heard “a little” or “nothing at all” about the IRA. At least two-thirds are broadly unfamiliar with its component parts, including electric vehicle subsidies and tax credits for wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing.… Just 37 percent of voters approve of President Biden’s handling of infrastructure issues. Only 41 percent approve of how he’s handled jobs and unemployment, while a dismal 26 percent approve of how he’s dealt with inflation.

That all spells trouble in the years to come.

If you missed it, check out Kate’s proposed solution: Pool Party Progressivism.

And then there’s America’s perennial preference to spend money on defense rather than climate policy. The defense industry could be converted into an engine for the new green economy, Indigo Olivier wrote early in the year. Instead, the United States has directed money to Ukraine and Israel while leaving climate change–vulnerable nations in the global south to fend for themselves.

The gruesome feedback loop became particularly apparent this fall, Molly Taft argued:

The U.S. military—which is estimated to emit more carbon dioxide than many countries—is mobilizing to provide even more support to Israel. Iran, a supporter of Hamas, is the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer that has not signed the Paris Agreement; inside its borders, its citizens are facing catastrophic levels of air pollution and are being forced to migrate as droughts, storms, and floods destroy the land. We keep ruining our planet as we kill each other, and one murderous cycle feeds into another.

Meanwhile, oil companies have profited tremendously from this slaughter. They’re still getting new drilling projects approved and new leases from the federal government, by the way.

The Lesson

A string of especially frustrating, nonsensical bad news this year made it clearer than ever that some systems just need to change. These aren’t giant, arcane mysteries that would require three dozen policy wonks working around the clock, or a new executive agency, to solve. We know what needs to be done. For example: Stop letting oil companies sue governments for policies that cause them to lose money. Stop growing wildly unsustainable crops in the water-parched American Southwest. (Alfalfa for cows in Saudi Arabia? Really?) Just get rid of gas stoves. (Aside from members of “the GOP’s pro–childhood asthma caucus,” much of the public may be persuadable, particularly if someone gives them an induction stove to test-drive.) Ban pesticide and herbicide use on lawns. (We can discuss banning lawns entirely and banning the gas-guzzling machines used for their maintenance later.) Kick executives and lobbyists from the plastics, oil and gas, and meat industries out of U.N. talks. Put a special tax on private planes. Stop expecting businesses—particularly the ones that got us into this mess—to save us from global warming. The enduring message of 2023 is that we know what we need to do. The task is to generate sufficient political momentum to do it.

Good News/Bad News

The Biden administration announced a plan this week to protect old-growth tree groves from logging on federal lands. Also, Colorado released five wolves into the wilderness as the first part of a reintroduction program in the service of ecosystem restoration and biodiversity. The footage is pretty cool—watch here.
The American Gas Association is doing its darndest to keep gas in U.S. homes, mounting a legal challenge, amid other lobbying efforts. And your current gas bill could be helping them do that.

Stat of the Week


That’s the proportion of bird species that have gone extinct due to human activity in the past 120,000 years, according to a new study.

What I’m Reading

It’s time to start planning for the next thousand years

Some inspiration to close out 2023. In lieu of giving up, in the face of shrinking temporal windows and soaring temperatures, perhaps it’s time to reframe the problem:

It’s easy to lose hope after a year like the last one, which saw Amazonian drought, rampant deforestation, coral reef die-offs and the hottest recorded year on Earth. But reversing this will not be the job of a single generation. It will take many decades, if not centuries, of what [Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication] called “cathedral projects.” “The climate needs big, public, audacious goals that everyone can contribute to,” he argues. “Cathedrals were not completed in the lifetime of anyone starting them, but communities bought into these projects.” Everything from rebuilding coral reefs and reforesting the Amazon to repowering the world’s energy system and capturing gigatons of carbon dioxide could be the cathedrals of our time. We should portray them as bold, transcendent projects for the collective good that encompass generations—not only in the dry, dense language of technical climate reports.

Read Michael J. Coren’s full column at The Washington Post.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The COP28 Climate Deal Is Lipstick on a Pig

The UN process for averting planetary collapse is broken. Here are some ideas for fixing it.

Activists hold signs reading "End Fossil Fuels."
Giuseppe Cacace/Getty Images
Climate activists during the United Nations climate change conference COP28

Mona Ainu’u is the minister of natural resources for Niue, an island nation of about 1,600 people in the South Pacific. On Monday, she was reportedly in tears as she reacted to the latest draft produced by the U.N. climate conference, which omitted the words “fossil fuel phaseout.” “My 12-year-old, what am I going to say to her when I come back?” Ainu’u asked. Niue is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, which could easily jeopardize its fresh water supplies.

That same day, another 12-year-old named Licypriya Kangujam stormed the COP28 stage bearing a sign calling for an end to fossil fuels. “Millions of children like me are losing their lives, losing their parents, and losing their homes due to climate disasters,” shouted Kangujam, who lives with her family in Noida, a city about 12 miles southeast of the Indian capital of New Delhi.

“We’re very proud of the enthusiasm of the young people who have joined us at COP28, and let’s give her another round of applause,” said COP28 director general Majid Al Suwaidi, after Kangujam was hauled out. Then, according to Kangujam’s social media feed, her COP28 badge was revoked and she was kicked out of the conference.

On Wednesday, headlines trumpeted the “historic” and “unprecedented” deal that negotiators at COP28 reached after working throughout the night, finally agreeing on a text that calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” It didn’t say “phaseout,” as many vulnerable nations wanted, nor is the agreement binding, but it was the first time ever that a U.N. climate agreement has explicitly called for a decrease in fossil fuels. As such, it will be perceived in many quarters as a victory. Yet veterans on this topic know that this outcome isn’t enough: “Overall, I think this is a stronger text than the prior versions we have seen,” the U.N. Foundation’s senior adaptation adviser, Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, told Al Jazeera. “But it falls short in mobilising the financing needed to meet those targets.”

In the past week, a lot of ink has been spilled on how the U.N. climate conferences got this bad and whether there’s any way to make them better. But it’s hard to think of a better encapsulation of what’s wrong with the conferences than this tale of two 12-year-olds against the backdrop of 2,400 COP28 badges awarded to participants from the fossil fuel industry.

The first Conference of the Parties, or COP, held in 1995, involved a few thousand “diplomats and scientists,” The Washington Post reported this week. In recent years, that has ballooned to an 84,000-person traveling circus that business lobbyists now see as a prime networking opportunity. “The negotiations, we’re not really part of that,” Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for policy Marty Durbin told the Post. “But we do have the opportunity to meet with officials and other companies and dig into these critical issues.”

How best to kick these grifters out is the subject of some debate. Ideally, as a starting step, the conference would ban absolutely all representatives of fossil fuel companies. But that’s hard to do when some may be part of official national delegations.

Michael Mann and Susan Joy Hassol, writing in the Los Angeles Times, demand an “overhaul of the COP rules and processes. It’s almost embarrassing to have to explicitly state, for example, that petro-states—those whose economies heavily depend on the extraction and export of oil and gas—should not be allowed to host the meeting. Given the enormous conflict of interest, oil industry executives should not be allowed to heavily influence, much less preside over, the summit.”

That is hard to argue with, although, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff recently argued, the United States should probably be considered a petrostate too: It’s the top producer of oil and gas in the world. And while the U.S. economy may be more diversified than that of some petrostates, the sector still accounts for 8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to throw its weight behind any reform that tells states like itself to sit down and shut up. (If Donald Trump wins reelection, that may be a moot point, as he’ll probably withdraw the country from the conferences entirely.)

There are other, more procedural ideas for how to improve these meetings. Former U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Christiana Figueres said earlier this year that while “multilateral engagement” was the point of the original COPs, it’s now “distracting governments from doing their homework at home.” Experts surveyed by Grist’s Tik Root suggested smaller “working groups” or “sectoral agreements”—like one regulating methane—in lieu of big conferences on total emissions targets.

Subash Pandey, writing in The Kathmandu Post, suggested taking the entire group of nonstate actors and giving them their own event at a different time and place—still “under the UNFCCC’s purview”—so that the state negotiators can do their work in relative peace. Although this would kick out a lot of NGOs and activists as well, there might be an added benefit. “Smaller COPs,” Pandey wrote, “would make hosting these events more accessible to smaller and less affluent nations. Consider countries like Nepal, which currently may struggle to organize COPs that attract tens of thousands of participants. Small COPs would provide a unique opportunity to host COPs, showcasing the real and immediate impacts of climate change, particularly in regions like the Himalaya.”

None of these reform ideas are perfect. Kicking out all nonstate actors, for example, would leave a lot of state actors with personal or professional ties to industry, while excluding climate justice advocates and others seeking to amplify more vulnerable voices. But a policy that cuts attendance drastically so that less wealthy nations have a chance of hosting would make voices like Ainu’u’s and Kangujam’s harder to ignore.

Who knows whether, reform or no, it’s possible for the assembled states at these meetings to agree on anything substantive and binding, or for the lumbering and unjust political structure of the U.S. to pass a law enacting it. But at a bare minimum, delegates should probably be forced to confront the consequences of their inaction in the airports they fly into, the streets they traverse on the way to the conference center. They should be deliberating surrounded by reminders of fossil fuels’ destruction, rather than monuments to the immense wealth these fuels have created for a select circle. People condemning their more vulnerable brethren, as well as subsequent generations, to danger, hunger, instability, sickness, exile, or death shouldn’t be “comfy” while they’re doing it. And they shouldn’t be able to dismiss the vulnerable with a round of applause and a revoked badge.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA’s “Good Neighbor” rule, which requires industry to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, was quite effective at reducing smog this past summer. It hasn’t been fully implemented, though, because fossil fuel groups, utilities, and Republican governments in 12 states have chosen to challenge it in court instead. Reducing smog costs too much, they say.

The Arctic is in serious trouble, according to an annual “report card” from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which noted the region is warming faster than the global average and recently experienced its warmest summer since 1900.

Stat of the Week

That’s the proportion of the world’s freshwater fish at risk of extinction due to climate change and other human-caused disruptions, according to a new report.

What I’m Reading

Biden Should Abolish Secretive Corporate Tribunals that Bypass the Law

Investor-state dispute settlements, or ISDS, allow corporations to essentially sue a government for “policies that reduce their profits,” Molly Taft writes. These processes take place in private and then the corporations are compensated with taxpayer money. And if governments, including the U.S., are serious about fighting climate change, Taft argues, these settlements should be scrapped:

Giving powerful corporations the ability to leapfrog international judicial systems and keep major rulings secret in pursuit of profits may be a fair trade-off to the Journal’s editorial page. But activists warn that the potential applications of ISDS are especially dire when it comes to the climate crisis. A 2021 analysis by the International Institute of Sustainable Development of more than 1,200 publicly available ISDS cases dating as far back as the 1970s found that the fossil fuel industry used the ISDS process more than any other industry, bringing around 20 percent of all cases, and that the majority of these cases were decided in favor of investors.

Read the rest of Molly Taft’s piece in The Nation.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

A Grumpy Guide to a Sustainable Christmas

Here are the most ridiculous suggestions for celebrating this season without trashing the planet—plus a few ideas that won’t devour your time or money.

Two horses tow a carriage bearing people in top hats and a Christmas tree.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The White House Christmas tree delivered on a horse-drawn carriage in 2019

You know what I really love reading while plutocrats turn the U.N. climate conference into meaningless blather? The onslaught of seasonal service pieces about how to make my Christmas tree more sustainable. They’re completely unhinged.

Let’s start with the central question driving these stories: Should you buy a real or artificial tree? Most people want a simple answer—and for what it’s worth, most experts say the more sustainable option is a real tree, unless you reuse your artificial one for decades. But it won’t take long perusing the Google hits before you conclude that, whatever you pick, you’ll need a horticultural degree and a lot of time if you want to celebrate Christmas without feeling like a planet-destroying little shit.

CBS ran a piece this year suggesting people buy tree species native to their region—for example, a Douglas fir if you live in the Pacific Northwest—and “look for local nurseries that protect their soils from erosion and minimize harm to surface and groundwater from runoff.” This on its own may be tough, since the nursery industry is now dizzyingly complex and not particularly local.

And once the holiday season is over, you’re supposed to dispose of the tree responsibly so it doesn’t end up in a landfill and produce methane as it decomposes. If your municipality doesn’t offer tree-chipping services, and you don’t have a yard in which to compost your tree, CBS adds that “trees can be used as an erosion barrier for sand or soil or as fish habitat in lakes. They can even be donated whole to zoos, where the trees provide entertainment for animals … or they can be tossed into a bio-burner to provide heating for buildings. Some people even feed trees to goats.”

Now, you might balk at sourcing local goats to eat your Christmas tree. But that’s only because you haven’t read how complicated it is to turn your tree into a fish habitat. Per the story linked above: “As an avid angler, your boat likely has an electronic fishfinder with GPS capabilities. You can use your fishfinder to scan the bottom for the best areas lacking any cover. Take into consideration seasonal fish transitions, relation to deeper water and close proximity to a main river channel.” Once you’ve heaved your tree into the inky depths below, “keep it a secret and mark the location with a GPS waypoint.” That way you can return to slay the little fishies attracted to your tree and eat them for dinner without any fear that other anglers will steal your catch. The spirit of Christmas, folks!

I’m cherry-picking the most ludicrous suggestions here, but only a little. A WBUR item last year urged people to buy an organic tree or keep their artificial tree “well-dusted and vacuumed around regularly so their PVC materials don’t shed heavy metal dust.” This admittedly sounds like a good tip. But having read that their tree is poisoning them, people might be reluctant to follow the next suggestion: “Try to keep your [artificial] tree as long as possible to avoid waste.” Salon says that in order to calculate whether a real tree or artificial one is better, you should factor in the distance you are driving to the Christmas tree farm. Sentient Media, a nonprofit focusing on factory farming, suggests the best option is specifically “an artificial tree purchased second-hand” or “a potted live tree that can be replanted outside after the holidays.”

The Washington Post this year endorsed potted trees as well, disdaining cut conifers because even if your municipality shreds them into mulch, the wood chipper is powered by fossil fuels. The proposed solution is mind-bending:

This year, consider rethinking the Yule tradition by opting for a young potted tree instead.… Many of these Tannenbaums—ranging from tabletop-sized to seven feet tall—can work well in smaller living spaces. And after Santa has visited, they can be planted outside to extend (hopefully) fond memories of the holidays. All it takes is a smidgen of planning, a touch of maintenance, a well-executed exit plan and the right tree.

I see versions of this “plant your Christmas tree” a lot, and find it perennially confusing. Even if you suppose The Washington Post is read solely by homeowners, what percentage of them have the kind of yard that could absorb a Christmas tree being planted outside year after year? Are these people living on multi-acre estates? And if so, why are they also in “smaller living spaces”? If the idea is to dig the tree up again the next year, do people understand how hard that is? Do they have backhoes?

That’s before we get to the “smidgen of planning,” which involves a “two-inch layer of pebbles” to foil bathroom-seeking house cats, pre-digging a hole outside before the ground freezes, moving the tree after Christmas to an unheated garage for a week to “acclimate,” moving the tree—still in its pot—back to the hole in the ground, and then in spring taking it out of the pot and planting it in “dirt and compost,” mulching the top, and watering it.

So basically, in order to have a sustainably decorated living room this holiday season, you need to start your own Christmas tree farm.

What makes this all so maddening is that sustainability around this time of year is a real problem. American households generate an estimated 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than they otherwise would, resulting in one million extra tons of junk each week. But here’s the thing: If you celebrate Christmas, all you really need to do to make it more sustainable is buy less stuff.

Do that however you like. Repurpose items you already have—ladders, Christmas cards, books—into gorgeous tree-like installations. Reduce the gift-wrapped goods (and wrap the gifts you do buy with paper from your recycling bin). Whether you’re religious or secular, there are many customs and traditions that don’t require consumerism. Some surely have universal appeal: Bake cinnamon rolls or some other indulgence, spend an evening by candlelight, volunteer at your local food bank, host a soup potluck. For the die-hard “my Christmas must look like a Dickens adaptation!” folks, add a Smoking Bishop or a Yule log.

Some environmental activists would argue that all this “sustainable Christmas” talk is a dangerous distraction anyway, since households—particularly lower-income ones—aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to either emissions or trash; fixating on Christmas sustainability is exactly what fossil fuel executives want and exactly the kind of stuff that makes people think environmentalism is no fun. There’s an element of truth to that.

But a lot of people, me included, want to live their values. For the sake of those people, let’s not make sustainability sound like it takes weeks of research, specialized manual labor, and thousands of dollars. It’s quite easy, more fun, and even a bit radical to spend your holiday on things—and with people—you actually enjoy. But whatever you do, please don’t get yourself arrested dumping a tree in the lake as part of some well-intentioned clandestine op.

Good News/Bad News

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed stricter limits on lead in drinking water, with utilities required to remove almost all lead water pipes across the country by 2033—10 percent of pipes each year for 10 years. Probably shouldn’t have taken the richest nation on earth this long to decide to stop poisoning children, but there you go.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels probably won’t happen at this point. Limiting it to two degrees will be hard enough. Bill Gates, unhelpfully, has already given up on that too, and thinks as long as we stay below three degrees it won’t be too bad. A lot of research suggests he’s wrong about that. “Every tenth of a degree matters,” a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insisted earlier this year.

Stat of the Week

375 million

That’s the number of electric vehicle batteries the Salton Sea in Southern California could produce, according to recent analysis, if extracting lithium from the “geothermal brine” currently used to power turbines becomes cost effective. Read more at the Nevada Current.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

As mentioned last week, Pope Francis has been way more willing than any leader of a rich nation to denounce fossil fuels and capitalism as the cause of climate change. He had to skip attending COP28 in person due to illness, but he sent a speech to be read aloud by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

It has now become clear that the climate change presently taking place stems from the overheating of the planet, caused chiefly by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activity, which in recent decades has proved unsustainable for the ecosystem.… We find ourselves facing firm and even inflexible positions calculated to protect income and business interests, at times justifying this on the basis of what was done in the past, and periodically shifting the responsibility to others. Yet the task to which we are called today is not about yesterday, but about tomorrow: a tomorrow that, whether we like it or not, will belong to everyone or else to no one.

Particularly striking in this regard are the attempts made to shift the blame onto the poor and high birth rates. These are falsities that must be firmly dispelled. It is not the fault of the poor, since the almost half of our world that is more needy is responsible for scarcely 10% of toxic emissions, while the gap between the opulent few and the masses of the poor has never been so abysmal. The poor are the real victims of what is happening: we need think only of the plight of indigenous peoples, deforestation, the tragedies of hunger, water and food insecurity, and forced migration.

Read the full address on The Vatican’s website.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Taylor Swift Has Nothing on Pope Francis

The pontiff still believes that pulpits can be used to shift political culture. The pop star mostly hasn’t used hers.

Taylor Swift sings into a microphone while gesturing with one arm.
Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images
Taylor Swift performs onstage as part of her "Eras" tour on November 24 in Sao Paulo.

I was disappointed when news broke Tuesday that Pope Francis was canceling his appearance at the U.N. climate conference this week due to illness. First, because I wanted to hear what he might say; the Vatican’s prior climate communications have been pretty spicy, and his insistence Sunday that he would fly to Dubai for the conference—intravenous antibiotics or no—seemed to suggest the pontiff might open up a nice big can of liberation theology on COP28’s fossil fuel shills. And second, because I was really hoping to write a newsletter about the pope showing Taylor Swift how it’s done.

Swift has been criticized both for her relative political timidity and her personal carbon footprint. In 2022, she received the top spot on a list of “Celebs With the Worst Private Jet CO2 Emissions.” Then, on Friday, November 17, 23-year-old Ana Clara Benevides collapsed at a Swift concert in Rio de Janeiro, during a heat wave that shattered all-time records for Brazil and contributed to a brief first-ever rise in average global surface temperatures by more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Benevides died later that day at the hospital.

“What does Taylor Swift owe the planet?” Emily Atkin and Arielle Samuelson asked in the Heated newsletter. The star posted a message to Instagram on Saturday, the day after Benevides’s death, explaining that that evening’s show had been postponed to keep “fans, fellow performers, and crew” safe. It did not mention the broader context of this extreme heat. And as Atkin and Samuelson persuasively argued, it probably should have.

“Extreme heat experts say Taylor Swift’s deadly concert and the Earth’s grim temperature milestone are in fact part of the same narrative,” Atkin and Samuelson wrote. “They each illustrate the consequences of ignoring scientists’ warnings about the deadly risks of climate change.” Not only do pop stars need to start factoring extreme heat into their tour plans ahead of time, but it’s increasingly clear that Swift has tremendous cultural power and ability to shift political opinion. “At some point,” climate writer and Swift fan Jeff Goodell told Atkin and Samuelson, “if she wants to be a force for good in the world, she needs to use her voice at moments like this.”

Of course, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Benevides’s death would have been a tough time for Taylor Swift to talk about climate change: Would it have come across as deflecting from the fact that the fan died at her concert? Would it have come across as hypocritical given her own oversize carbon footprint?

At the same time, Swift is a savvy communicator, and there are ways to navigate these potholes that could make her potential leadership on climate change more compelling, rather than less—especially since this isn’t about her emissions just as a pop star with a private plane but as the head of a massive international business. As a blueprint, imagine something like this:

All of us working within organizations, businesses, and governments need to think about how to adapt our processes to keep people safe in this new normal. So last night I asked the managing staff of the Eras tour to start coming up with a plan to address extreme heat and other weather events at our concerts, in order to keep both fans and staff safe as these once-unthinkable weather events become more common.

I’ve also been thinking about modifications I can make to reduce the emissions contributing to the problem. Going forward, I will be reviewing how both I and the Eras tour conduct business so that we can align our actions and the example we set with our values. I don’t know yet what that will look like. But I know we’re all up against a very scary problem right now, and I want to be part of the solution.

Pope Francis offers an interesting point of contrast here. He too risks losing fans when he gets political. In fact, instead of risking album or concert sales, he risks the unity of the Catholic Church, which is central to his mission and legacy. (Taylor Swift’s legacy as a top-selling pop star, I would argue, is already cemented.) He too travels with an entourage, albeit on a chartered plane rather than a private jet.

Yet Francis clearly thinks it’s worth speaking out about climate change. He seems to believe we’re at a crucial moment where those who have the power to speak publicly have a moral duty to do so.

So anyway, I was putting the finishing touches on this inspiring example when news of his trip cancellation broke. The pope has a very good excuse: He is quite sick, in addition to being nearly 87 years old and missing part of his lung from a teenage illness.

But the trip cancellation further lowers expectations that were already abysmally low for this summit. Joe Biden is missing the gathering for the first time of his presidency; his administration recently held the first of several oil and drilling rights sales that will proceed while COP28 is underway. Internal documents from the United Arab Emirates, reported this week by The New York Times, show that COP28 president (and head of the state-owned oil company) Sultan Al Jaber plans to use the conference to bolster oil and gas deals for the UAE. A different set of documents leaked to The Guardian shows that the meat industry intends to use the summit to promote the idea that meat is good for the environment (it isn’tnot even close).

The pope wasn’t going to single-handedly turn this pablum-and-disinformation factory of a conference into a productive meeting. But a voice like his—the papacy has traditionally been an “establishment” position perceived as speaking from the global north—calling bullshit on rich nations and their corporations would, at the very least, have been a refreshing break with COP tradition. The pope still believes a pulpit can be used to sound the alarm, shift the culture just a fraction of an inch, and make political change more likely. Imagine what it might look like if more global figures with a pulpit—like Taylor Swift—believed similarly.

Good News/Bad News

Programs designed to help coal workers transition to good jobs that are more sustainable are getting a fresh infusion of cash, the Energy Department announced this week.

It’s looking like 2023 may be the first year when average global temperatures rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. This was the original limit set in the Paris Agreement, the level of warming countries would strive to keep the world below. A single year beyond 1.5 degrees, a new Vox piece points out, doesn’t mean that limit has been crossed definitively. But it’s a milestone that many will rightly interpret as an urgent call to action.

Stat of the Week

12.9 million barrels

That’s how much crude oil the United States is on track to produce by the end of the year—“more than double what was produced a decade ago,” The Guardian points out—as the country’s representatives head to the U.N. climate conference this week. The U.S. is set to break records for both oil and gas production.

What I’m Reading

The libertarian developer looming over West Maui’s water conflict
Invasive grasses like the ones growing on land belonging to Christian real estate developer Peter Martin may have played a role in Maui’s recent, devastating wildfires. Amazingly, that’s not the most striking detail in this piece, which explores the battle between Martin and Native Hawaiians like Ku’uleialoha Palakiko, as the latter fight to maintain access to water while Martin’s developments drain the land dry. Who knows why people like Martin talk to reporters if they can’t refrain from ridiculous statements like, “I’m not comparing these people to Hitler; I’m just saying.…” But talk he did. And the results are something else.

Martin says he didn’t set out to make Launiupoko a luxury development, but that its value spiked after Maui County imposed rules that limited large-scale residential development on agricultural land. Martin’s development was grandfathered in under those restrictions, and demand for large homes drove up prices in the area. He says criticism of swimming pools and landscaped driveways is rooted in envy.

“People come over and make their land beautiful by using water,” he said.

Martin also maintains that there’s more than enough water for everyone, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Annual precipitation around Lāhainā declined by about 10 percent between 1990 and 2009, drying out the streams near Launiupoko, and now Martin sometimes can’t provide water to all his customers during dry periods.

Read Anita Hofschneider’s and Jake Bittle’s article at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Reconsidering the American Fridge

Sure, it’s big enough to fit your Thanksgiving turkey—but that makes it a magnet for food waste too.

Jamie Kelter Davis/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Is there any day of the year that tests the capacities of affluent Americans’ French-door refrigerators as much as Thanksgiving? When else do you need to stuff a giant bird carcass, cranberries, pie crust, a wide array of vegetables, and more into a fridge already containing regular groceries? Then there’s the matter of storing the leftovers.

In the past century, artificial refrigeration has completely transformed the American food system. Home refrigerators allow people to keep perishables for longer, and the artificial “cold chain”—meaning the use of refrigeration for processing, transporting, and holding items in the store prior to sale—has allowed food to be transported farther than ever before. As a result, refrigeration has often been praised—particularly by refrigerator manufacturers—for reducing food waste.

Food waste is a huge problem not just for food security but for climate change. By some estimates, the emissions from food waste—not just the wasted inputs from growing, processing, and transporting, but also the methane as food decomposes in landfills—are triple those from aviation. And almost 15 percent of food-related emissions, according to the U.N. Environment Program, come from transport problems like inefficient refrigeration.

But figuring out whether refrigerators are good or bad for the climate is surprisingly tricky. Aside from the energy the devices require, the hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigerators are far more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. One 2018 study out of the University of Michigan modeled the effects of establishing a refrigerated supply chain where none currently exists, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, and found that the savings in food waste were overwhelmed by the emissions from the chain itself, resulting in a 10 percent jump in emissions overall. That’s not a reason not to establish that chain, of course—reducing food waste and enhancing food security are objectively worthy goals, and cold chains are also vital for some medications and vaccines—but it complicates the story of refrigerators’ beneficence a bit.

And the picture is particularly complicated when it comes to home refrigerators in affluent societies. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all food in the U.S., which has a relatively robust cold chain, is still wasted, and home waste accounts for nearly 40 percent of that—a problem that’s getting worse, not better. Some research in the United Kingdom has suggested lowering the temperature of home refrigerators from the national average of 45 degrees Fahrenheit to about 39 degrees Fahrenheit, so items don’t spoil as quickly, would save 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions from food waste. But in the U.S., the FDA already recommends keeping the temperature below 40 degrees, so that wouldn’t help much over here.

Meanwhile, other papers have suggested that refrigerators themselves increase food waste among affluent consumers by encouraging them to buy more than they can actually consume in time and leading them to put off using an item until it inevitably spoils.

The Washington Post this week ran an informative piece about how to “feng shui your fridge,” interviewing behavioral scientist Jiaying Zhao for tips to cut down on food waste. Solutions involve putting your fruits and vegetables at the front, rather than hidden in drawers that theoretically keep them fresh but where you can’t see them. “It’s a trade-off,” reporter Nicolás Rivero wrote, “between extending the life of your perishable items or boosting the chances that you’ll remember to eat them.” Or consumers could organize their fridges by “first in, first out” principles, ensuring that the oldest items are in the front.

These are good suggestions, although they also require people to make an extra effort to counteract the behavioral promptings of an industry-designed device—a problem that is common to a lot of advice on sustainable living. Another way to do it would be to design fridges better—or, if not better, smaller. As with another emissions-heavy device Americans love (cars), the size is part of the issue: If it’s possible to lose something in your refrigerator, maybe the device is just too big.

Smaller refrigerators could save people money while simultaneously reducing food waste. It would, of course, be tricky to fit a giant turkey or a Christmas roast into a smaller fridge. But then again, that might have the effect of reducing consumption of another big emissions driver in the American diet: meat.

Good News/Bad News

The European Parliament this week voted for their delegates at next week’s U.N. climate talks to support ending all fossil fuel subsidies at “national, EU and global levels,” in addition to tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency by 2030. The vote on its own doesn’t do much, but it’s noteworthy because sometimes governments focus on that last part—increasing renewables—while shrinking from direct discussion of fossil fuels.

Brazil recorded its hottest-ever temperature on Sunday (two days after a 23-year-old Taylor Swift fan died at a concert in Rio de Janeiro, where the heat index hit nearly 140 degrees).

Stat of the Week

2.9 degrees Celsius

Even if countries completely follow through on their current pledges (a big “if”), the planet would currently be on track to warm by 2.9 degrees Celsius (5.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a new report from the U.N. Environment Program warns. For context, climate experts have previously urged nations to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. With considerable angst and regret, many have now admitted that hitting that target is unlikely. But limiting warming to two degrees—which would still cause severe and deadly disruptions—is considered an urgent priority.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The EPA considers approving fruit pesticide despite risks to children, records show. Most people know, in theory, that lobbying is a force in government. But it’s a different thing to see the details. Environmental Protection Agency emails acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity show that lobbying and political pressure may have led the agency to go easy on Aldicarb, a pesticide that poses risk to children’s developing brains and has been banned in over 100 other countries. The Guardian reports:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering approving a pesticide for use on Florida oranges and grapefruits despite the fact that agency scientists have repeatedly found the chemical does not meet safety standards designed to protect children’s health, internal agency records show.

EPA emails indicate how, for years, agency scientists have wanted to deny new uses of aldicarb, but appear to have not done so because of persistent pressure from chemical industry lobbyists, politicians, and political appointees.

The records indicate how, during the Trump administration, the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs approved the pesticide, moving from a position favoring public health to one that critics say prioritized the interests of a North Carolina-based company called AgLogic that is seeking to expand sales of the insecticide. The EPA’s approval was later rejected by the state of Florida and a federal appeals court. Aldicarb is still, however, being considered for approval by the Biden-era EPA.

Read Nat Lash’s and Janet Wilson’s report at The Guardian.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.