Against Dystopia

While the blogosphere exploded with (mostly bad) hot takes, I decided to lay low and let the GameStop frenzy blow over. I don’t have anything to say about all that (Matt Levine has been doing some great, hilarious writing on what he has only half-jokingly announced “is a GameStop blog now,” but this piece from Alexis Goldstein of Markets Weekly was the single best analysis I read of the situation), other than to note that GME has come down 90% from its peak a week or two ago.

Because this is primarily a climate crisis, not a GameStop, blog, I’m happy to pivot – by way of Corey Doctorow’s excellent summary of the variety of GME takes – back to the defining issue of our time. He writes:

Every couple of years, we have a massive, systemic financial crisis, and every time that happens, the finance sector lobbies for a no-strings-attached bailout, abetted by suckers who hate the finance sector but fear starving in their old age. We’re about to be engulfed in the second-largest crisis of our lifetime – the reckoning from trillions in capital market gains propped up by the Trump administration’s policy of buying all corporate debt as a covid stimulus. (the largest crisis of our lifetimes is a few years off, as the climate emergency piles losses on losses, stranding tens of trillions in assets, from fossil fuels to obsolete gas-stations to literally underwater coastal real-estate to whole towns incinerated by wildfires) That’s where we’re at: a crooked casino that we’ve trusted our futures too, a crisis on the horizon, and a bunch meme-stock “players” who have thrown the normal weirdness of the market into stark relief through a spectacular stunt.

Too often, corporate media voices either sensationalize climate crisis, or ignore it altogether, but comparatively little of the media coverage, as yet, involves the nuance we need to both make sense of this monumental challenge we are facing (so as to rise to the occasion), and to avoid the pitfalls of climate doomism and Hollywood-style disaster porn, which makes analyses like Doctorow’s all the more welcome.

On Mistakes

I’ve been thinking a lot about climate finance, climate investment, and what the impact of climate crisis will be on financial markets, and will likely be writing more about those topics in the coming months. In the meantime, spurred by the writing of Zeynep Tufecki and Michael Mann’s new book, respectively, I’ve been reflecting on things I’ve got wrong, to date, about the pandemic and about climate crisis, and trying to better understand my own missteps. To my credit, I got many things right, and with respect to climate crisis in particular, the benefit of my past misjudgments is a sharpened sense of the challenges and opportunities of our current impasse; however, to the extent that I can discern a through-thread in my errors, it has to do with an over-reliance on trusted sources. This is, of course, ironic, because so much of my own process is predicated on genealogies of knowledge and the development of networks of trusted experts/thinkers, but to the extent that I, for example, under-appreciated the value of masking up back in March, or indulged in my own climate doomism back in 2016, it was primarily a function of trusting the wrong sources and of failing to fact/reason-check conclusions based on first principles.

One lesson I hope to carry forward from the experience of the pandemic into the deepening struggle of this climate decade, therefore, is a dialectical synthesis of these powerful modes of thought: Continuing to develop my own thinking in conversation with/respect to that of other trusted authors/writers/speakers (as a counter to the increasingly amorphous, sourceless propagation of ideas and “facts”) while also striving to base my analyses in a materialist/naturalist conception of a world and universe governed by laws, principles, and theories that can guide our understanding of what is reasonable, what is likely, and what is possible.

On Data

Less than two weeks ago, I noted the following headline in the Times of India: “India sees less than 12K new cases, 50% of them in Kerala,” and wondered: What are the odds that 50% of all the COVID-19 cases in India happened to come in one of its smaller states, but coincidentally, the state with the most functional public health apparatus and that has handled the pandemic most ably?

Then, last week, the following headline appeared in the ToI: “Over 300 million Indians may have COVID-19: Source citing government study”; subsequently, the news broke that a nationwide seroprevalence survey had shown 21% plus seropositivity rates in India, which would, indeed, put the total number of Indians infected over the course of the pandemic in the vicinity of 300 million (although of course, antibody tests have all sorts of reliability issues, neutralizing antibodies fade with time, etc). I’m not really looking to dig into this data in detail here, but only to point out once again the absurdity of the way that the pandemic is being reported upon in the United States. Yes, the US happens to have the most confirmed cases and deaths in the world. No, it probably is not accurate to histrionically pretend that the pandemic has somehow raged here while largely sparing countries like India when, in the case of India in particular, it is increasingly obvious that a negligent government (or set of governments at every level of administration) has simply decided to collect as little data as possible on the pandemic, whether about case counts, deaths, or anything else.

On Settler Colonialism

At the time COVID-19 hit New York City, I had been writing about the struggle by Wet’suwet’en land and water protectors to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The Red Nation Podcast has an excellent interview with two of those protectors “on the one-year anniversary of RCMP raid on Unist’ot’en Camp.” I highly recommend you give it a listen.

A 5-Minute Synopsis of Climate Crisis

What follows is the script of remarks I gave last week during a Zoom panel for fellow alumni (and current scholars) of the Morehead-Cain program at UNC (with slides included).

I’m honored to join this accomplished group of panelists, and especially honored to have been nominated by them for the straightforward task of summarizing climate crisis in five minutes.

The impacts of climate crisis are being disproportionately suffered by poor people, communities of color, and in the Global South. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous, Black, and youth climate champions are often at the forefront of climate action globally. Especially given the problematic bases of the fortunes of our benefactors, I hope to attend many future Morehead-Cain climate events featuring more diverse and representative speakers.

Climate crisis is the culmination of 500 years of capitalist development rooted in slavery and genocide. Often, focus is directed narrowly towards global heating and sea-level rise, but climate change is only one of a number of planetary boundaries our current economic system threatens to rupture, just as there are a number of key human needs that this system leaves unmet. This is why we must reject false solutions – like geoengineering – that fail to account for the complex interconnections of the challenges we face, and work towards actual solutions – like a Green New Deal in the US – that center those most harmed by long histories of extraction and violence.

By 1990, the science was largely settled on human-caused global climate change, and yet, 60% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have occurred in the last 30 years. This has everything to do with the power of the fossil-fuel industry and its climate denial apparatus. On that note – although I’m not a fan of military metaphors with respect to climate or the pandemic – I encourage everyone to read Michael Mann’s excellent new book, The New Climate War.

Pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 concentrations were steady around 280 ppm. In fact, concentrations had been range-constrained roughly between 2 and 300 ppm for nearly a million years until the post-World War II combustion binge. The current concentration is roughly 415 ppm, which is why it is so urgent that we get to net-zero emissions as quickly as possible.

Most of us don’t think in gigatonnes, but from the start of last year the remaining carbon budget to stay below 2ºC of heating was less than 600 of them. At our current burn rate, we would exceed that budget by the end of 2030, but even 2º of heating would be catastrophic. We’ve seen the fires, droughts, superstorms, derechos, and all the rest at slightly more than 1 degree of heating today, which is why we need to fight to keep the heating to 1.5ºC or less. One example of the significance of that half degree, drawn from the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report: At 1.5º, we lose 70-90% of coral reefs; at 2º, we lose effectively all of them. Meanwhile, business-as-usual scenarios have us on pace for at least 3-4º C of heating. To stay below 1.5º, there is a roughly seven-year window at our current burn rate, which, again, is why we need to reach net-zero ASAP.

In a US context, there are five main sources of GHG emissions: Transportation, power generation, industry, buildings, and agriculture. Of the total, perhaps 10% of emissions are from hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation. That means 90% of the emissions are relatively easy to decarbonize given current technologies – only political will has been lacking, and I hope you’ll ask yourself how you can contribute to reducing emissions at scale in one or more of these sectors.

“Nature is healing” was a popular 2020 meme; however, according to a recent Nature Climate Change article, there will be essentially no long-term impact of pandemic-driven emissions reductions on global heating.

However, that same article concludes that a green-stimulus approach to pandemic recovery can significantly reduce heating between now and 2050.

I believe Bernie Sanders was trending after the inauguration largely because, although he lost the political battle, he won the war of ideas. Ironically, Joe Biden takes office with the most progressive presidential platform in at least 50 years, with climate crisis front and center in his agenda.

In short, we have the technology; there has been a massive shift in popular, political, corporate, and financial consensus on the urgency of climate crisis; and the arrival of the Biden-Harris Administration offers us a once-in-a-civilization opportunity for timely climate action. Additionally, as Bill pointed out, modeling now suggests that locked-in heating was being overestimated; if emissions go to net-zero, the heating will largely cease.

Accomplishing this is our work for the next 30 years.

The Path to (Climate) Victory

I already recommended Michael Mann’s excellent new book on climate politics and climate action; what follows is the text of an email I sent to some friends with respect to the opportunity/challenge of the new administration and the decade(s) to come that expands on my previous post (and re-recommends his book!). Regular readers will know that I was neither enthusiastic about Joe Biden, nor am I strong booster for the corporatist Democratic Party, but as a matter of pragmatic politics, I believe we now have an opportunity, unparalleled in my lifetime, to redirect the course of the country, and I hope we seize it:

“I’m confident we all breathed a big sigh of relief last week, and I’m feeling more optimistic about the political direction of our country than I ever have. Certainly, there is an element of melancholia in Bernie Sanders trending (and I know I’m to the left of most if not all of you), but I think there’s also a profound level at which the bundled-up-Bernie memes capture subliminally the extent to which, in losing the political battle, Sanders won the cultural war over the future of the Democratic Party, and hopefully the United States.

Ironically, then, given his record, Joe Biden takes office with the most progressive agenda of any US president in the last half century, and I believe our task today is to ensure that Biden, Harris, and the Democrats deliver on big, ambitious, popular reforms/programs/promises that will be wildly, widely popular and can solidify Democratic dominance of US politics for a generation to come, while, more importantly, helping to meet the needs of the vast majority of people in this country who have suffered under neoliberal austerity, etc. for the past ~50 years.

The Republican Party is, increasingly, (to borrow from Noam Chomsky) a “death cult,” and there is a future in which the events of January 6th at the Capitol mark the death spasm of an unhinged and omnicidal movement; there is also a potential future in which that movement roars back under the leadership of figures just as sinister, but more capable and less buffoonish and lazy than the now twice-impeached ex-president.

Our work is to secure the former and avoid the latter, in the process delivering a future for ourselves, our country, and generations to come that will be better than the world we were born into. Neoliberalism now threatens to give way to neofascism globally, and it’s up to us to forge a new consensus. I see this as a worthy task – a kind of calling for our generation – and, as you know, it’s my belief that climate crisis and our response to it will most centrally define whether we succeed or fail. 

To that end, I have a personal request to make of you: Please read Mike Mann’s new book, The New Climate War (ideally by borrowing it from your local public library, or otherwise not buying it on Amazon). I’m not in the habit of making such requests, but I believe his book – a kind of manifesto for the transformative decade we need, the transformative decade which is now fully within our collective ability to make manifest – is the right text, at the right time, from the right person.

To those of you more familiar with climate issues and politics, much of what Mann writes will be review, but the nuanced insights he offers in his analysis of what constitutes true progress – and what tactics of denial, but also delay, distraction, and deflection stand in the way to it – point the way forward more clearly than anything I’ve read recently; additionally, his book has the advantage of being accessible to a popular audience, briskly written, and, at times, funny. I don’t agree with him about everything, but I think he’s put his finger on the core of the pragmatic politics that will let us remake the country and avert catastrophic climate change over the course of the next decade and beyond, and I hope you’ll read it sooner rather than later […] and if you buy a copy, and see fit, pass it along to someone you think needs to read it when you’re done.”

Here’s to a transformative decade ahead.

Eyeing the Virus

One week ago, I wrote about my growing concern that one of the new SARS-CoV-2 variants (the 501Y.V2 variant, first identified in South Africa, in particular) might achieve immune escape. This morning, the New York Times reported on the same, in an article entitled, “Emerging Coronavirus Variants May Pose Challenges to Vaccines”; here’s what I see as the key line: “[S]cientists had hoped that the new vaccines would remain effective for years, on the theory that the coronavirus would be slow to develop new defenses against them. Now some researchers fear the unchecked spread has given the virus nearly unfettered opportunities to reinvent itself, and may have hastened the appearance of escape mutations.”

Public health failures may now be undermining remarkable techno-medical achievements, just as public health failures (and disregard for the health and well-being of the world’s poor) have created conditions conducive to the emergence of novel zoonoses like COVID-19. It’s important to note that the study (which can be found here) upon which this NYT reportage leans heavily examined the responses of antibodies found in convalescent plasma to the novel variant, and may not necessarily reflect in vivo immune responses. (The relatively rapid loss of neutralizing antibodies in convalescent individuals was – for a time, at least in the mass media – interpreted as a sign that infection with SARS-CoV-2 might not lead to lasting immunity, and yet both common sense (e.g., the fact that very few reinfections were occurring) and, subsequently, research findings both strongly suggest/ed that lasting immunity is conferred by infection.)

In the meantime, in other vaccine news, results drawn from Israel’s world-leading apartheid vaccine rollout suggest that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine really are necessary to achieve protection, while from the UK, evidence suggests that the same Pfizer vaccine is protective against the B.1.1.7 variant (which was never really in doubt).

Finally, I find it increasingly implausible that only rich, democratic countries (that happen to have disproportionately older populations, making it that much harder to hide the burden of mortality) are experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks. It is likely that subsequent epidemiological studies will uncover far more extensive spread of the disease across many poor and/or authoritarian countries than has yet come to light. Case in point, while there has certainly been coverage of the renewed outbreak in the vicinity of Beijing, and of the Chinese Government’s remarkable/aggressive attempts to contain it, Tweets like this one (captioned, by Bill Bishop, author of Sinocism [paywalled]: “You don’t build these unless you need to”) suggest that the extent of the latest outbreak is being dramatically under-reported.

I’m officially very worried about what potential immune escape will mean for the global path out of the pandemic, but withholding judgment until we have more definite information.

How Do We Fix Things That Also Require Defending?

Zeynep Tufecki has an excellent piece [maybe paywalled?] out entitled “The Crisis of Authority and the Crisis of Expertise: Age of Misinformation and Defending (Imperfect) Institutions Under (Often Bad Faith) Attack“; she was – and has continued to be – consistently out ahead of almost all of us on key issues with respect to the pandemic and our responses to it.

She emphasizes how frustrating it is that the remarkable achievement that is these safe, effective, approved vaccines is being widely discounted or even rejected. On a similar note, I continue to be frustrated that our national (and New York State and City) vaccine rollouts continue to exclusively be characterized as “troubled,” as if the US hadn’t administered ~1/3 of all COVID-19 vaccinations to date globally. The daily average for this week will likely exceed one million doses nationally, and NYS and NYC have both now vaccinated more than 5% of their populations. These are almost unimaginable success stories by any historical standard, or even just based on expectations (including my own) from as recently as the fall, and while we should absolutely be demanding rapid improvements in the rollout(s) – especially given that such public-pressure-driven iteration is a strength of our democracy – it would be nice to also maintain a certain sense of humility and gratitude.

In the meanwhile, there continue to be reasons for grave concern about the risk of immune escape by new SARS-CoV-2 variants, though nothing definite is known in this regard as yet so far as I can tell. If we avoid the grim escape scenario, the pandemic will be effectively over in a few months in the US, largely owing to the remarkable achievement that is these vaccines. This doesn’t mean that we might not subsequently discover that there are long-term health consequences associated with one or more of the vaccines (an eventuality that I see as pretty unlikely, based on the nature of these vaccine platforms), but we should at least strive to maintain perspective on just how incredible these scientific and technological accomplishments are.

Finally, speaking of science, here are two sobering articles on what we lose, collectively, when corporations/unfettered greed/capitalism/extractivism destroy biodiversity. The world and other beings around us are unimaginably beautiful in their own rights, but it turns out that they are also fundamental sources of knowledge (including about potential treatments for disease).