The Steep Part of the Curve

Today, an assemblage of fragments of interest, as well as some brief comments on the emerging new climate consensus in the US.

First, the Fragments

As I’ve been arguing for some time, “America’s vaccine rollout has been among the best in the world”; that quote actually comes from an Axios headline, and it has been interesting to watch the elite/corporate media consensus shift on this, even as there continues to be a huge amount of griping and hand-wringing. Could our effort be much better? Definitely. Is it world-class and a tremendous triumph? Absolutely, as well. Barring immune escape by a SARS-CoV-2 variant, this pandemic will soon be over in the United States (and you read it here first, back in December).

I’ve also been arguing for a while that, under climate crisis, “extreme weather is leaving no area untouched” and that “No place is safe from failing US infrastructure”; I wish I could take credit for those great claims, but they are from Axios, again, and TechCrunch, respectively. This is why the idea that tech companies fleeing the Bay Area to – yes – Texas in response to catastrophic wildfires, or that huge outflows of capital and talent from New York City to “new homes that are less impacted by the climate crisis” are viable responses to climate crisis is so risible (as I wrote on January 1st of this year).

Tim Schwab has a good piece in The Nation reminding readers that – no matter that Bill Gates’ “new book, a bid to be taken seriously as a climate campaigner, has attracted the usual worshipful coverage” – Gates is not a real climate champion (but is a self-serving oligarch). I encourage people to read Michael Mann’s new book instead.

Vincent Rajkumar has an interesting Twitter thread on India’s COVID-19 statistics. I think he discounts the amount of outright lying and willful not counting going on, but it’s worth reading.

Finally, as New York Focus reports, “Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law”; there is growing opposition – in Albany, at City Hall, from leading establishment good-government groups, and at the grassroots – to Cuomo’s backroom attempt to gut NYC’s landmark Local Law 97. If you live in New York State, I encourage you to read over this letter, and then call the governor’s office (at 518-474-8390) before reaching out to your own City Council person, state assembly member, and state senator to voice your support for climate action, NYC’s green new deal, and in particular, Local Law 97, and your strong opposition to Part R of the proposed executive budget.

The Emerging Climate Consensus

I’ve been enjoying helpful posts from the new media venture, Climate Tech VC, especially their recent post, “Some risky climate business” in which they opine, “Climate risk is investment risk.” Until quite recently, I think most subsets of the US ruling class believed that a transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy would be harmful to their own interests. I believe we are now witnessing a rapid transformation in opinion, as corporate leaders in industries as diverse as electric utilities, auto manufacturers, and commercial real estate recognize that green transition – while costly up front – is actually beneficial to them and only harmful really to one industry: The fossil-fuel (and petrochemical, and gas utility, but you get the point). At the same time, escalating impacts of climate crisis are making very apparent to anyone paying attention the likely costs of failure to rapidly address the greenhouse-gas emissions crisis in particular. Although this does not guarantee a Green New Deal, a move away from extractivism, or even a redistributive shift in our politics, I do think it augurs an extremely rapid transformation of our economy as we hit the steep part of the exponential curve of transition now that technological, social, political, corporate, and financial interests are all aligning around some basic facts.

Climate Is All the Rage

Last week was a bad one for Andrew Cuomo. Maybe he knew in advance it was coming, and tried to finesse the damage through the resumption of indoor dining in New York City. I don’t know (although it was telling that SNL featured Governor Cuomo’s announcements about COVID-related re-openings, but made no mention – on “Weekend Update” – about his choice to hide the deaths of thousands of elders, many of which were caused by his own bad policies).

Anyway, the resumption of indoor dining is probably a bad idea, but maybe less bad than it seems, as the logic in this interesting Twitter thread suggests – key takeaway: “In summary, I think the most logical explanation for falling COVID cases is: strong ongoing behavioral limitations + heterogeneous mixing + rising population immunity.” It’s a quick but illuminating read.

With any luck, the governor’s malfeasance with respect to the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities will undermine his iron grip on power in New York State, and perhaps ease our path to preventing him from gutting NYC’s landmark climate legislation from 2019. On the front, I encourage you to read this letter, and, if you live in New York, to call all of your elected officials, including the governor, to express your support for Local Law 97 and your opposition to Part R of the proposed executive budget. New York needs a Green New Deal and real climate action in our city and state are long overdue.

In other climate related news, Bank of America has declared “Climate Is Next Race for Global Supremacy” and “this decade’s most important theme”; the Delhi police arrested a 21-year-old climate activist for sharing materials circulated on Twitter by Greta Thunberg; air quality in NYC’s subway system is bad (this has been an open secret for some time); fossil fuel companies have tricked many of us into loving gas stoves (which is one reason why our indoor air quality at home is so often bad as well); shocker, a decade on, fracking has not benefited fracking communities; and climate finance and climate risk are suddenly all the rage. Go figure.

As the above evidences, my thoughts are a bit scattered this evening; I’m adjusting to the reality in which climate crisis is being taken seriously at nearly every level of US society, but fundamentally, I remain optimistic that the pandemic is winding down in the US while climate action is ramping up, and will, indeed, be a defining “theme” of the decade ahead.

Video #1: A 5-Minute Synopsis of Climate Crisis

I’m honored to announce what may be my first appearance on YouTube (though can’t say I was holding my breath for the moment).

The video is now live for the recent Morehead-Cain event on climate crisis about which I wrote last week. For anyone solely interested in my remarks (hi Mom!), they start around the 6.15 mark, although I’d argue that the lively Q&A was the most interesting part of the evening.

Thanks for watching, and do reach out with feedback if you have any.

In heavier news,  Governor Cuomo is trying to gut NYC’s landmark Climate legislation from 2019 in what would amount to a massive handout to the real estate industry. If you’re a New Yorker, I would love if you would call the governor’s office and your local and state-level elected officials to express your opposition to “the Proposed Part R of the TED Bill in the Executive Budget, which would Cut Good Jobs & Increase Pollution,” in the words of the grassroots climate justice orgs that led the fight for the passage of the Climate Mobilization Act.

Here’s to a better future and the transformative decade we need and can win.

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.