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

Politicians Need to Talk About Air Pollution and Alzheimer’s

A new study links fine particulate matter pollution to the incurable disease. But American industry will fight any attempt at regulation.

Gas pours into the sky from a smokestack, with the sun in the background.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
Emissions from New Jersey's Essex County Resource Recovery Waste-to-Energy Facility

Last week, researchers at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health published a disturbing study linking air pollution to Alzheimer’s disease. Examining brains donated to research, they found that people who’d lived in areas with a lot of a certain type of air pollution had higher amounts of the plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease than those who’d been exposed to less pollution. And the association between air pollution and plaque was particularly strong for people who lacked the genetic markers indicating a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease.

You might be relieved, therefore, to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency just finalized its new, tougher standard for precisely this type of air pollution. But considering the problem solved would be a mistake: Business groups are fighting the regulation tooth and nail, preparing to challenge it in the courts as well as via lobbying and, presumably, political donations. “The new pollution limits could cause election-year complications for President Biden,” The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman wrote.

The air pollution the Emory researchers were studying is called fine particulate matter, which is produced by cars, cigarettes, industrial emissions, and wildfires, to name a few sources. This is not the first time fine particulate matter pollution has been linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Analysis using data from the Medicare Chronic Conditions Warehouse found a similar association, with “traffic and fossil fuel combustion sources” being “particularly” associated with higher levels of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Nor is it the first evidence that fine particulate matter can cause serious health problems. This kind of pollution has been linked to heart disease, heart attacks, asthma, premature deaths, and low birth weight. The EPA therefore estimates that its new standard would prevent 4,500 premature deaths per year.

Industry groups insist that the EPA’s rule would impede American manufacturing; cement industry representatives, for example, reportedly have threatened that the rule would lead to layoffs. (That’s despite the fact that the EPA’s rule, lowering the permissible amount of annual fine particulate matter exposure from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to nine, isn’t even as stringent as public health experts recommended.)

Findings like those in this new Alzheimer’s study theoretically offer a way to counter political opposition to tougher air quality standards. Alzheimer’s consistently ranks as one of the most feared diseases in the United States, in some polls beating cancer. Poll after poll, both in the U.S. and abroad, suggests that people fear dementia way more than they fear heart attacks or asthma, which are the risks typically invoked when we’re talking about air quality. While it’s worth emphasizing that there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about the association between pollution and Alzheimer’s—it’s going to be hard to definitively establish a causal relationship—it’s conceivable that a lot more people would support tougher air quality standards if elected officials put these kinds of studies on the table and said, “Look, do you really want to err on the side of industry on this one?”

And yet, you probably aren’t going to see politicians talking about this study and using it to defend the EPA rule on the campaign trail this year. The presidential front-runners in both parties have been accused of being old and disoriented, and there is zero chance that President Biden will defend his EPA’s new rule by mentioning the word “Alzheimer’s.”

But particularly because air pollution is very hard for people to wrap their minds around—very hard to turn into a sound bite—it’s important for voters to understand how rapidly scientific evidence is accumulating around its health risks: Two new studies recently reported by The Guardian found that “there is no safe amount” of fine particulate matter air pollution. Every additional amount in the air increases the risk for human hearts and lungs. The preliminary research on the Alzheimer’s link is completely consistent on this score: One study published in 2023 found “largely linear concentration-response relationships at low concentrations” of fine particulate matter pollution, with the authors emphasizing that this suggests there is “no safe level of air pollution for brain health.”

Fossil fuel combustion isn’t the only source of fine particulate matter pollution, of course. Wildfires are now a huge factor in poor air quality as well. And some industry groups have already used this to argue that the EPA’s new rule is unfair and will be ineffective.

But wildfires are, in turn, exacerbated by the climate change that fossil fuel combustion is driving. There’s more than enough evidence, at this point, for policymakers to pull the levers available to them to reduce air pollution and the processes that cause it, regardless of what the businesses that profit off that pollution have to say about it. Because it’s no longer acceptable to claim ignorance.

Good News/Bad News

Swarthmore College joins the list of institutions of higher education building ambitious geoexchange systems for campus heating and cooling.

South Korea’s carbon cap-and-trade system isn’t working. Not only has it failed to reduce industrial pollution, but polluting companies are actually profiting from the program.

Stat of the Week
2.5 million

That’s how many people in the United States were displaced from their homes by extreme weather disasters last year, according to new data.

What I’m Reading

Don’t Panic Over EV Slowdown

Recent reports suggest the electric vehicle transition is stalling, writes Sammy Roth in the excellent Boiling Point newsletter at the Los Angeles Times. But “I’m more concerned,” he writes, “by our seeming inability in modern society—or at least in modern California—to transition quickly away from the personal automobile as the One True Mode of transportation.” Roth points to the example of New York City road building, narrated in Robert Caro’s biography of urban planner Robert Moses:

Three major roadways connecting New York City and Long Island opened in 1936, Caro writes, “bringing to an even one hundred the number of miles of parkway constructed by Moses.” A newspaper editorial “opined that the new parkways would, by relieving the traffic load on [existing parkways], solve the problems of access to Moses’ Long Island parks ‘for generations.’”

Alas, Caro writes, “the new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks.” There were terrible traffic jams almost immediately—not only on the new roads, but also on existing roads.

Moses’ solution? Build more roads. Which he did, again and again, even as the problem repeated itself.… And yet here we are nearly a century later in the nation’s most forward-looking state, still debating whether “induced traffic” is a real thing. It most definitely is, as L.A. Times transportation reporter Rachel Uranga has made extremely clear in her stories. But that hasn’t stopped California from continuing to approve freeway-widening projects that promise to spew air pollution into low-income communities of color—and carbon into the atmosphere—while doing little or nothing to reduce traffic.

Read Sammy Roth’s full newsletter at Boiling Point.

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 War on Wolves Will Hurt Humans Too

Republicans are ramping up their rhetoric on gray wolves while research is showing how useful these predators can be.

One wolf leaps upward as another faces her.
Montana VW Pics/Getty Images
Two wolves play in the snow in Montana.

Republican Representative Pete Stauber offered a striking case study last week in the reinvigorated war on wolves. “A logger from northern St. Louis County just sent me this video of a wolf running through his job site and taking down a whitetail deer,” the Minnesota congressman tweeted, alongside footage of a wolf bounding over stumps in a clear-cut former forest. “As you can see, wolves lost any fear of humans and are increasingly dangerous to livestock & pets and decimating our deer herd. Delist!”

Stauber’s tweet drew an avalanche of criticism from what remains of liberal Twitter on the site now known as X. “You’re out there cutting down their home and have the audacity to talk about where the wildlife is,” reads the top reply. Others made use of the platform’s new “Community Notes” to post a 1999 ecology paper beneath the congressman’s tweet, focusing on the role wolves play in maintaining stable deer populations. But here’s what stood out to me:

First, Stauber’s call to “delist” gray wolves—that is, to remove them from protection under the Endangered Species Act—comes as the 2024 election heats up. And four years ago, as the 2020 election loomed, the Trump administration did exactly what Stauber desires. “It’s the latest in a series of administration actions on the environment that appeal to key blocs of rural voters in the race’s final day,” the AP reported at the time, noting that wolf hunts could resume in “Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—a crucial battleground in the campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.” The decision was later reversed by court order: U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, a Bush appointee, ruled in 2022 that the delisting qualified as “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act, and was therefore unlawful.

Of course, the extent to which gray wolves are actually “listed” in any meaningful sense is debatable. Despite the 2022 court order, gray wolves are not, in fact, federally protected in many states, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and parts of three other states. This has to do with a random rider inserted in a 2011 budget bill by Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson, who also stipulated that the rider would be exempt from judicial review.

2011 was the first time Congress had ever removed a species’ protections under the Endangered Species Act. The rider was widely perceived to be Tester’s attempt to gain ground over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, a former cashmere goat and cattle rancher who kept a stuffed wolf’s head on a wall in his office. Tester won that election despite Rehberg’s attempt to claim credit for the wolf delisting, and is up again for reelection this year. Rehberg, incidentally, may also be on the ballot: Politico reported his intention to run for the congressional seat in Montana’s 2nd district only an hour after Stauber tweeted the logger’s video.

Second, the full delisting of the gray wolf actually looks increasingly likely right now. On February 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the results of a recent review of gray wolves’ status, finding that protections were “not warranted” for either the gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains or the population in the Western United States. This on its own doesn’t change the wolves’ status, but it makes it a lot more likely that they will eventually be delisted—sooner rather than later if Trump is elected in November. (Stauber, incidentally, signed the amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2020 election in favor of Trump.)

And third, the renewed focus on delisting comes as more research suggests gray wolves—and many other predators—should be protected not because of whether or not they meet the current definition of “endangered” but because they are extremely helpful. Not only do they control the populations they prey on, often improving the health of those populations, but the knock-on effects of that predation can be remarkable.

In boreal forests, one study has estimated that by limiting the number of moose, which eat trees and shrubs, wolves could lead to vastly more carbon being sequestered per year than would otherwise occur—roughly the amount emitted by 33–71 million cars. While that finding may not hold for all ecosystems, researchers have modeled a similar effect for sea otters in kelp forests. Another study in 2021 found that predators help “buffer” the effects of heat waves on ecosystems. Lack of predators is believed to be a key factor in deer overpopulation in some areas of the country, driving a dangerous increase in tick-borne diseases that can infect humans. Not just Lyme disease but babesiosis is now spreading rapidly via deer ticks, The New York Times reported last year. Large white-tailed deer populations may also be contributing to the spread of the lone star tick, which can transmit ehrlichiosis, alpha-gal syndrome, and Bourbon virus, according to Undark magazine.

As Eleanor Cummins wrote for The New Republic in 2021, arguments against wolves usually fall apart under scrutiny, even when it comes to ranching:

In a 2015 study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that less than 5 percent of cattle and calves die from predation combined, and the single biggest cause of those deaths is coyotes. Of the 3.9 million cattle and calf losses reported that year, just 2,040 deaths could be attributed to wolves.…

Arguments about protecting elk and deer prove equally flimsy. Wolves tend to pick off the old and the weak of a herd, which benefits the health of the overall hunting stock. If wolves were to kill too aggressively, they’d be the first to suffer, as predator populations dip when they don’t have enough prey to eat.

All signs point to wolves’ growing status in humans’ culture wars this year. In order to fit a neat narrative, politicians will likely focus on the yes-or-no question of “listing” versus “delisting.” But as research is increasingly showing, the best arguments for protecting wolves have little to do with whether they’re currently on the “endangered” list.

Good News/Bad News

Heat pump sales outpaced gas furnace sales by 21 percent last year, climate publication Heatmap reports.

Last month was the hottest January ever recorded on the planet—the eighth month in a row featuring highest-ever temperature averages.

Stat of the Week
33,774 sq. miles

That’s the increase in the area of land in Greenland now sporting plant life rather than ice, relative to when monitoring of the massive ice sheet began in the 1980s.

What I’m Reading

Cement Is a Big Part of the Carbon Problem. Here’s How to Make It Part of the Solution

Jeffrey Rissman imagines a world where we don’t just reduce the massive emissions from cement and concrete but actually reverse them:

By combining clean heat with carbon-free minerals or equipment to capture the carbon emissions from breaking down limestone, cement-making could become carbon neutral by 2045. That’s an excellent first step, but the innovations happening today could take us beyond carbon neutral.

After concrete is made, it gradually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process called carbonation. With the ingredients and techniques common today, making cement produces more emissions than the material can later absorb, so every new ton of cement worsens climate change. But if cement kilns are heated with clean electricity and the emissions from breaking down minerals are avoided or stored underground, then the simple act of pouring concrete would remove carbon pollution from the air. New construction would help repair our climate.

Read Jeffrey Rissman’s op-ed at The Los Angeles 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.

When Rain Costs $11 Billion

Massively expensive weather events are getting more common.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Water rages along the Los Angeles River amid record rainfall on February 5.

$11 billion is a lot of money. It’s more than the annual budget of Montana, among other states. It’s more than the loan the International Monetary Fund is considering giving to Egypt to stave off economic collapse. It is 14 times the size of the latest funding gap for the public transit system here in the District of Columbia, described as an “existential crisis” forcing service cuts.

That enormous sum is the estimated cost of the damage from the atmospheric river that’s been pummeling California since Sunday—after a previous atmospheric river deluged the state last week. While AccuWeather released its $9 billion–$11 billion estimate on Monday, rains continued Tuesday and even into Wednesday, with the death toll rising from three as of Sunday to nine by Tuesday morning (mainly caused by falling trees or car accidents). Sunday alone was Los Angeles’s “wettest February calendar day in 110 years, and the third overall wettest day since records began being kept in 1877,” according to local news service KTLA. Several areas of Los Angeles County got a foot of rain in around 48 hours, causing some 475 mudslides, while winds and fallen trees left over 850,000 homes and businesses without power further north.

We know that climate change is increasing the severity of many types of weather events. Category 5 hurricanes, for instance, are becoming so common that scientists, in a paper published Monday, now say we need a Category 6 to account for hurricanes with wind speeds well above Category 5’s threshold of 157 mph. So it’s no surprise that multiple studies have found that atmospheric rivers, which are bands of moisture in the air, are also getting worse. As Dave Levitan wrote for The New Republic this week, “The warming atmosphere can hold more water, meaning it can drop more of it on us all at once.”

And all of this increasingly destructive weather has a cost. For more than 40 years, from 1980 to 2023, the average number of annual weather disasters in the United States each year “with losses exceeding $1 billion” was 8.5. In 2023, there were 28. And California, along with pretty much everywhere else, remains dangerously underprepared.

As Dave observed, some of the most important measures cities could take to mitigate extreme precipitation are strikingly “mundane”: not massive seawalls, but stuff like bigger sewers, green roofs, strategic landscaping. Not that this necessarily comes cheap, though. “The reason the sewers and storm drains aren’t built for anything even close to the catastrophe unfolding in California is largely thanks to cost,” Dave wrote.

Which brings us back to $11 billion. Granted, one of the reasons the costs of this storm could be so high, AccuWeather noted, is that it has hit “some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the state.” And you might see numbers like this and think, Well, insurance companies and wealthy real estate owners will bear the brunt of it. In some cases, sure. But storms can financially wreck the people, businesses, and municipalities that don’t fall into that category. And don’t forget: The insurance industry is slowly abandoning California, while similarly retreating from Florida, Louisiana, and other disaster-prone states.

Our safety nets for extreme weather, which were always inadequate, are getting even more threadbare. $11 billion—and, let’s not forget, nine lives—is a reminder that not preparing for climate change, and not cutting emissions fast enough, costs a heck of a lot, as well.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA estimates that its tougher air quality standard—specifically regulating fine particulates, commonly called soot—could prevent “up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032,” according to the agency’s press release. The standard is also predicted to result in 800,000 fewer “asthma-related emergency visits” per year, reports NPR.

Researchers studying sea sponges think they’ve discovered evidence that the world has already warmed 1.7 degrees Celsius (that’s over three degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial levels. That’s way more than previously estimated. Other scientists dispute the finding.

Stat of the Week

$57.4 billion

That’s the combined profits of ExxonMobil and Chevron last year. While it’s down from the obscene profitability of 2022, The New York Times’ Stanley Reed reports, it would “otherwise” be both giants’ “biggest annual profit in a decade.”

What I’m Reading

Rise of the Lone Star Tick Brings New Disease Threats

A lot of people in the Northeastern United States hear “ticks” and think “Lyme disease.” That’s outdated, reports Rene Ebersole:

Environmental conditions have tilted toward the lone star [tick]’s advantage, said Monmouth County tick researcher Andrea Egizi. The forests are recovering from decades of logging, white-tailed deer populations have rebounded, and winters are getting warmer due to climate change. “It’s kind of this perfect storm for them to be taking over,” Egizi said. Citizens in New Jersey encountered mostly blacklegged ticks until roughly 10 years ago, when the counts “switched over to being dominated by lone stars,” she added.

Research shows the lone star tick’s expansion has been progressing for a few decades; it’s now established from Florida to Maine and as far west as Nebraska.

The rise of the lone star tick is alarming, say public health officials, because it carries novel maladies. These include a Lyme-like bacterial disease called ehrlichiosis, which first appeared in humans [in] the mid-1980s; a meat allergy that sounds like a female superhero, alpha-gal syndrome; and the emerging Bourbon virus, first identified in humans around 10 years ago when a Bourbon County, Kansas man died after being bitten.

Read Rene Ebersole’s report at Undark.

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

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.