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

This Week’s Winter Storm Is Scary—but So Is the Heat Wave

Balmy days in February can cost us big down the road. Just ask a farmer.

Peaches lie on the ground beneath a tree.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Fallen peaches from trees during a harvest in Reynolds, Georgia

An invisible diagonal line is transecting the country this week, dividing Americans into two extreme realities: in the West and northern Midwest, record cold, dangerous freezing rain, and heavy snowfall; in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, a historic heat wave, sending mercury in Appalachia and even the nation’s capital rocketing toward 80 degrees in what’s historically been almost the heart of winter. (Back in 1990, the District of Columbia experienced its final freeze of the season on April 13.)

What’s a healthy response to this surreal weather week? While Western and Northern regions prepare for what could in fact be dangerous conditions, unseasonably warm weather often gets met with a shrug: Here in D.C., a handful of people may grumble about the eerie and even alienating effect of the city’s increasingly titular winters, but others often happily plan to make the most of a balmy day—have an early barbecue, make one dark remark about impending climate catastrophe, pass the beer.

The way these weather events are reported to the average news consumer, I suspect—and, specifically, the emphasis on temperature—contributes to the confusion about how to respond. “Washington, D.C., could approach 80 degrees Thursday,” is how the Post reported this news. “That would be just two days later than the city’s earliest 80-degree reading on record.”

That’s a wild statistic, but it’s also a morally neutral one. Early versus late aren’t existentially fraught terms. And if anything, “early” in the English language is associated with good things: “The early bird gets the worm.”

Agriculturally, however, a single record-setting temperature isn’t always the best way to measure the disruption that weird weather can bring; cumulative odd temperature matters too. This week’s heat wave, for example, will hit some of the country’s top states for agricultural production—including Texas, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Georgia. And when it comes to some of the country’s most beloved crops—the iconic Georgia peach, for example—heat waves, even in February, can be tremendously disruptive.

Both peaches and blueberries, which are produced in abundance in the American South, depend on a certain number of what’s known as “chill hours” in winter to trigger fruit production in the spring and summer. For peaches, that means a certain number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. “Overall, chill hours are decreasing across most parts of the country, as temperatures increase,” University of Georgia agricultural climatologist Pam Knox told me by phone. “It’s hard to document exactly how much that is because there hasn’t been any real research that shows that.” She pointed me to a graph, however, for chill hours in Peach County, Georgia, showing both the historic average accumulation of chill hours over the winter season and the past two winters. This season, as of February 19, the total number of chill hours is 746, compared to a historical average of over 1,100.

Chill hours are one of those niche climate variables that really only fruit producers are interested in,” Knox acknowledged. But they can really throw a wrench into agricultural timetables. “Most farmers will hedge by having more than one variety of peaches, some that respond to fewer chill hours and some that respond to more chill hours,” she said. “So for some peaches, 700 hours would be sufficient; for some other varieties they would need at least 1,000. More farmers now are leaning toward shorter,” she said, noting that “we would very seldom expect to match the historical average” at this point.

But even then, a heat wave can screw things up, whether for peaches or for Georgia’s even more abundant crop of blueberries. “If you use something that has too few chill hours and they get their chill hours early,” Knox noted, “the plants are ready to go. We get some really warm weather for a few days and they pop, the blooms come out, and that makes them very vulnerable to a late frost,” which would kill the blooms. “Keep in mind,” she added, “that in most of Georgia the last average day of frost for the year is mid-March. Last year we had frost in April.”

There are things farmers can do to guard against this, she added, like covering trees or bushes with water ahead of a subsequent cold snap that freezes to keep the plants from getting too far below 32 degrees. They can also spray the trees with specialized chemicals. All of that costs money, though—one of many ways that climate change translates into higher food prices, even if few politicians are yet willing to treat the topic as the kitchen table issue it is.

Reporting not just record temperatures for a given month, but also chill hours, might be one way media coverage could help people understand the impact of unusual weather—although it would require investing in different types of data collection. Another way, and one less specific to fruit production and more easily understandable to nonfarmers who can still see the effects all around them, might be emphasizing the ever-earlier onset of spring, as measured by so-called “phenology,” i.e., when flowers bloom and birds start to nest. The USA National Phenology Network, Knox pointed out, measures this: “They update it every day, and it shows at least for Georgia that we’re at least two weeks ahead of normal conditions.”

Here in D.C., there is some awareness of phenology through the dating of the annual blossoming of ornamental cherry trees, which attracts tourists. This year, “the indicator tree,” WTOP reporter Megan Cloherty tweeted last week, “which usually blooms 2 weeks before the others on the National Mall, is budding. @NationalMallNPS says it’s not a question of [if] the trees will bloom early, it’s whether they’ll break a record.”

Good News

The New York Times has a surprisingly bullish report on sustainable aviation fuel, which remains costly and very rarely used. In addition to United Airlines leading the launch of a new $100 million venture capital fund for the technology this week, David Gelles reports, Boeing has pledged to double its use of sustainable fuel in 2023, and multiple startups are currently building new factors for fuel production. Gelles points out that United Airlines has, in a rare move, pledged to meet its zero-emissions goal by 2050 without relying on carbon offsets—offsets being something climate advocates, with good reason, increasingly regard as bogus. (Read more about that here.)

Bad News

Four new proposed oil terminals off the Texas coast—one of which the Biden administration has already approved—could produce emissions equal to three times the entire United States’ annual current emissions, The Guardian reports.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

This Is What They Call “Essential for Life”

Climate journalist Emily Atkin points out an undercovered aspect of the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio: The toxic chemicals leaking from the derailed train were largely petrochemicals used to make PVC. Atkin circles back to an advertisement aired last year by petroleum refining company Valero:

In the commercial, we watch a new father imagining his infant daughter grow up. As she gets older, she’s surrounded by plastic products made from petrochemicals: crayons, lip gloss, a plastic drum set. The father beams with pride. The soothing voice returns. “Essential products,” she says. “Essential for life.”

The commercial is supposed to serve as an invitation for us to think about the wonderful things that can happen to a child because of plastics.

But when I watch it, all I can think about is the children in East Palestine, where the air was recently coated in the cancer-causing chemicals needed to make these plastics—the same ones we’re told are “essential for life.”

Read Emily Atkin’s newsletter at Heated.

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

Air Pollution Kills. Why Are We So Bad at Recognizing That?

From the East Palestine derailment to the gas stove backlash, our society struggles to see pollution as a real and urgent threat.

A plume of smoke rises over a residential neighborhood.
Dusitin Franz/Getty Images
Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Three years ago, a coroner’s report made Ella the first person in the United Kingdom to have air pollution listed as her cause of death. Nitrogen dioxide levels in Ella’s neighborhood in southeast London, coroner Philip Barlow concluded, exceeded legal limits, while the levels of particulate matter exceeded World Health Organization guidelines. Citing the strong, well-established scientific link between such pollution and asthma risks, Barlow announced that “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”

This historic report only happened because Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, devoted years to a legal fight to have her daughter’s death reviewed by a second coroner. In the two years leading up to Ella’s death, she was admitted to the hospital almost 30 times, The Guardian reported in 2020, with her lungs collapsing or partially collapsing five times. And these attacks spiked not during pollen season but “in winter when air pollution levels spiked.”

Humanity is exceptionally bad at recognizing and properly weighing these kinds of risks. Hurricanes, shootings—these things too are normalized more than they should be, but they make front-page headlines, and human society seems capable of processing them. We can understand that a specific event causes a specific death.

We have a much harder time properly appreciating the toll of something like pollution, which isn’t an event so much as a backdrop. “By all rights, it ought to be treated as a severe weather event like a storm or fire,” TNR columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in September 2021. “Air pollution puts us in physical danger, leaving us more vulnerable to lung diseases, heart attacks, and even Covid-19. Even in the United States, which enjoys cleaner air than much of the world, air pollution killed an estimated 230,000 people in 2018.”

But poor air quality—frankly, any kind of environmental contamination—is mostly not treated like a crisis: Its contours are hard to perceive, the cause and effect not as concrete as a fire destroying a home or a flood sweeping away a car.

We’ve seen that in the swift backlash to regulation of gas stoves, which leak both nitrogen dioxide and carcinogenic benzene. “I think that people may have a real problem trying to accept the idea that small concentrations of leaking natural gas, particularly benzene, might cause health problems,” veteran tobacco litigator John Banzhaf told me last fall, “the same way that people had real difficulty believing that amounts of drifting tobacco smoke could cause health problems.” And that’s despite researchers consistently showing the link between gas stoves and respiratory illness since the late 1970s.

We’re seeing it now in the sluggish national response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3. The accident spilled toxic chemical cargo into the surrounding area, which was then subjected to a “controlled burn” to avoid the risk of an explosion. Only this Tuesday were residents belatedly told it might be safer to drink bottled water until testing is complete. About 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals are transported by rail each year, by the way, and rail safety regulations are pretty lax.

Anyone with eyesight in East Palestine could see, from the plume of toxic smoke that rose from the accident site for days, that the air was unsafe to breathe. But what about invisibly foul air? Google Maps, Liza Featherstone writes this week, has begun featuring air quality scores in its app. That’s useful for planning your travels, perhaps, but cold comfort for people who “have no choice but to live in the most toxic parts of town.”

The obvious solution is not to allow air to be polluted at these levels at all! But industry opposes any broad attempts to limit air pollution, as we’re seeing with the energy companies gearing up to fight a new Environmental Protection Agency smog and soot plan. In the U.K., meanwhile, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah is still fighting for what’s become known as “Ella’s law,” a clean air bill to enforce better pollution standards starting in 2030, rather than 2040 as previously planned. Those 10 years, Kissi-Debrah has pointed out, can be measured in an estimated 300,000 lives.

Good News

The Senate will continue House Democrats’ work last term of investigating fossil fuel industry–funded disinformation—which many feared would falter once Republicans took the House. The big question is whether the documents collected by the House Oversight Committee can be transferred to the Senate Budget Committee, where Sheldon Whitehouse intends to revive the investigation.

Bad News

Alaska Senators Murkowski and Sullivan are preemptively pitching a fit over the prospect of the Interior Department making ConocoPhillips’s $8 billion Willow drilling project in Alaska follow certain guidelines to limit environmental devastation. “They damn well better not kill the project,” Murkowski told reporters this week, arguing restrictions would make the project unprofitable—thus killing it.

Stat of the Week

That’s how much of the earth’s wetlands a new study estimates has been lost since 1700.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Wait, Exxon’s Not Going to Be an Algae Company?

Exxon has finally, formally, scrapped its weird project that was allegedly going to use algae to produce energy. Environmentalists have been denouncing the project as classic greenwashing since its inception in 2009. Bill McKibben reviews the whole bonkers narrative in his newsletter. “All of this should teach us some lessons about credulity,” he writes:

[Exxon] invested some millions in algae research—and invested huge sums of money in boasting about it. For much of this period, a viewer encountering the company for the first time would have concluded that Exxon was an algae company who happened to have a few oil wells on the side. The company spent at least $50 million on tv time bragging about algae, and as I wrote in 2020 in the New Yorker, it hired a bunch of high-powered “creatives” to, among other things, develop truly lovely web videos showing teeny tiny algae-powered devices. In one installment, algae-fuel is used to propel a tiny boat around a bowl. This algae, a sprightly narrator notes, could power “entire fleets of ships tomorrow.” In fact, the ad contends, algae could fuel “the trucks, ships and planes of tomorrow.” It concludes, “This is big.”

But it was not big. “Algae” was never going to be a solution to the emissions crisis—as people have been noting for many years, you’d need oil trading at $500 a barrel to make it cost effective. A trial at Swansea University, in Wales, showed that, if you wanted to supply, say, ten per cent of Europe’s transport-fuel needs with algae, you’d need growing ponds three times the size of Belgium.

Read Bill McKibben’s newsletter at The Crucial Years.

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

Finally, a Gas Stove Proposal That Cares About Poor People

The District of Columbia City Council is considering a bill that will allow low- and moderate-income households to switch out their gas stoves—if they so choose—for free.

Charles Allen gesticulates while speaking at a podium.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images
D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen speaks during a swearing-in ceremony on January 2.

Last Friday, District of Columbia Councilmember Charles Allen led five colleagues in introducing a bill to address the health dangers of gas stoves in the home. You might think, given all the coverage of the gas stove wars in the past month, that this legislation was just the latest salvo in the growing contest between Democratic policymakers who want to regulate gas stoves and Republican policymakers who want to outlaw any law that outlaws gas stoves.

The D.C. bill differs significantly, however, from how the cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York—as well as Montgomery County, Maryland—have approached gas stove policy. Whereas those places have banned gas hookups in new buildings, Allen’s bill aims to make stove-switching affordable in existing moderate- and low-income homes. The idea, per a release on Allen’s website, is to use federal funds made available by the Inflation Reduction Act to help households earning less than $80,000 switch out their old gas stoves for free, allowing them to buy and install an electric or induction stove with “no out-of-pocket costs.” It also proposes incentives for others to switch: a fee for installing “new fossil fuel-burning appliances during major renovations,” for example, and a prohibition on installing these devices in public housing. But the legislation’s main goal is enabling low-income households to choose what kind of device they want in their home—and, if desired, get rid of polluting stoves that may have been installed before people were widely aware of the health risks.

Allen’s bill, which was originally submitted late last year before the gas stove issue exploded into public consciousness, is an important policy innovation. And it points toward a way to avoid the whole bogus culture war that ignited last month when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety commissioner gave a quote to Bloomberg that suggested his agency was open to banning gas stoves to protect consumers.

While the American right immediately jumped on this quote as a consumer rights issue—the government is coming to steal your stove!—the people who really get screwed by gas stoves, as TNR columnist Liza Featherstone recently pointed out, are those who don’t have much choice about their appliances to begin with. In other words: renters, low-income households, etc. The bottom line is that regardless of your opinion of gas stoves as a cooking device, no one should be stuck living with an appliance that is poisoning them.

The Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York City bans on new gas hookups didn’t focus on this, and that may be because the rationale offered at the time for those bans was climate change: specifically, gas stoves’ copious emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The bans on new gas hookups were presented as a way to help each city meet its emissions targets going forward.

But as researchers have been stressing for decades, methane emissions aren’t the only problem with gas stoves. Since the late 1970s, studies have been showing a link between gas stoves and respiratory illnesses, particularly in children. And research in the past year has highlighted that the stoves are also leaking benzene, a known carcinogen with no safe exposure limit. In other words, gas stoves aren’t just a collective risk when it comes to the climate—there’s ample evidence that they’re poisoning people in their homes.

Bans on new gas hookups are probably a good idea from a climate perspective. But they don’t help people currently stuck with gas stoves in their homes. What the D.C. bill gets right is that giving people the means to remove a toxic appliance from their homes ought to be a clear ethical priority for policy going forward. In addition, reframing the debate over gas stoves as a matter of tenants’ rights—of giving people the ability to choose not to be poisoned—may be a smart political strategy to avoid the nonsensical culture wars that have become a sad feature of modern American life.

Good News

The Inflation Reduction Act is, as intended, stimulating green job creation. More than 100,000 clean energy jobs have been announced since last August, according to a new report.

Bad News

Thirty-four percent of plants and 40 percent of animals in the United States are at risk of extinction, and 41 percent of U.S. ecosystems are at risk of collapsing, according to a report released Monday by conservation research group NatureServe. The biggest threats to terrestrial species are from invasive species or disease and agriculture, with climate change close behind, while freshwater animals are particularly threatened by pollution and human water management practices. (Read Prem Thakker’s piece about how biodiversity fell off the Biden administration’s agenda in the past year.)

Stat of the Week

That’s how much energy could be generated simply by putting solar panels on the roofs and parking lots of every Walmart in the U.S., engineering professor Joshua Pearce told The Washington Post. (That’s as much as, or more than, the amount expected to be generated by a new and unprecedentedly ambitious parking-lot plan in France.)

Snidely Whiplash Award:

The National Oilheat Research Alliance and the Propane Education and Research Council have been funding and disseminating misinformation to dissuade homeowners from switching to heat pumps, the Post reports. Heat pumps can dramatically reduce a household’s energy bill and are eligible for federal tax credits due to provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. The propane trade association “has put out training material coaching installers how to dissuade customers from switching to electrical appliances.” The heating oil trade association, meanwhile, has been paying for campaigns telling Maine residents—many of whom are looking to switch from ultra-expensive oil-based heat—that heat pumps won’t work in their climate.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Cars are rewiring our brains to ignore all the bad stuff about driving

A new study by a team in Wales suggests people suspend a lot of their values when it comes to defending car culture. The way they tried to measure this is fascinating, comparing subjects’ opinions on a given car situation with another analogous ethical situation not involving cars to identify unconscious biases:

For example, people were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “People shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes.” Then they were asked to respond to a parallel statement about driving: “People shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes.”

While three-fourths of respondents agreed with the first statement (“People shouldn’t smoke...”), only 17 percent agreed with the second (“People shouldn’t drive...”).

Another statement addressed values around theft of personal property. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “If somebody leaves their belongings in the street and they get stolen, it’s their own fault for leaving them there and the police shouldn’t be expected to act,” as well as the parallel statement, “If somebody leaves their car in the street and it gets stolen, it’s their own fault for leaving it there and the police shouldn’t be expected to act.”

Only 8 percent of people disagreed with the first statement, while 55 percent of people disagreed with the second one.

Read Andrew J. Hawkins’s piece on this at The Verge.

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

Rich People Are Boiling the Planet

What’s one thing wealthy people of all nationalities have in common? Far higher emissions than the poorer people in their country.

The Woolsey Fire approaches homes in Malibu, California
David McNew/Getty Images
The Woolsey fire approaches homes in Malibu, California, on November 9, 2018.

You may have heard that U.S. emissions per capita are the highest in the world, in part because the United States is by far the world’s largest economy. But a new report highlights that wealth inequality within countries is as important as inequality between countries when it comes to per capita emissions. Put simply: The global rich are disproportionately driving this climate catastrophe.

The 2023 “Climate Inequality Report” from the World Inequality Database, authored by economists from the Paris School of Economics and Iddri Sciences Po, is the latest study to emphasize that income is one of the best predictors of emissions—not just at the national level but also at the individual level. North America as a continent—led by the United States—still produces over four times the emissions of the entirety of Latin America and almost 10 times the emissions of South and Southeast Asia. But “at the same time,” the authors note, “comparing country-level averages can mask the underlying contributions of different population groups.” The poor in the U.S. aren’t emitting anywhere near as much as the rich.

To get a sense of what this report and similar findings ought to mean for policy going forward, I called Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex and co-founder of the Rapid Transition Alliance, whose previous research has focused on inequality and behavior change in the climate crisis.

Heather Souvaine Horn: The big finding from this report is that the emissions gap between rich and poor is bigger within countries than it is between countries. Does that finding surprise you at all?

Peter Newell: Not hugely. There’s been quite a few studies recently—Oxfam did some work earlier on this, and to some extent it was confirmed by some of the things we found in this report we did, the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change, about this “polluter elite” being quite crucial to action on climate change, how to target that action in more effective ways. I think what’s also important to highlight is some of the different dimensions of that power.

People often think about it just in terms of the behavior change—about the richest in rich and poor countries, around their lifestyles: the SUVs, the big houses, the private jets, the yachts. Those things are hugely important. But what this report points to is that it’s also the financial and political power of that elite.

HSH: How are the superrich managing to blow the carbon budget this badly? Where is it going?

P.N.: Well, that goes back to what I was saying about there being different dimensions. One is around those high-consuming behaviors: Almost by default they have larger houses that then have to be heated. Having larger vehicles, driving them longer distances, flying more frequently. So if you look at all the hot spots in terms of where emissions are growing fastest, it’s areas like energy and transport and food, and across all those areas emissions are quite correlated with income; the more disposable income you have, the more people will be out buying luxury goods, the more their energy consumption is likely to be higher.

But then combined with that is also the financial and political power. If you’re also running a company that’s investing in fossil fuels, or buying shares in lots of companies involved in mining activities or cement production or any super-carbon-intensive sectors, that’s going to start to magnify again the footprint you have.

It’s also a relational thing: It’s about the crushing levels of poverty that still exist around the world. The elite look particularly bad because there are so many people that are in such a marginalized position.

HSH: There’s a common refrain from climate obstructionists that acting on climate change, taking it seriously, means that poor countries won’t be allowed to develop. It sounds like the finding here is that that’s not true—it’s just that we can’t all consume like the superelite.

P.N.: Exactly, I think they make that point very clear. How can we possibly say to countries—India and elsewhere—that they can’t increase their emissions? They can. It’s really about reining in the overconsumption of carbon in richer parts of the world.

But there’s this inter-societal dimension as well. Elites in India and parts of Africa often have as high a carbon footprint as people in the United States, in Canada, or the U.K. It’s wealth that is crucial to this. In a way that’s a useful entry point, because it gets beyond the naming and shaming of individual countries as always being good guys and bad guys: There are plenty of people in the States that are very very poor and not overconsuming carbon budgets. It’s about overconsumption of carbon by elite actors who have the cultural, political, economic power to do so.

So that’s an important finding: Respecting carbon budgets isn’t about restricting emissions growth from poorer countries that clearly need to move up to a certain level to meet their basic needs. It’s about freeing up the carbon space for them to do that by constraining elites’ overconsumption.

HSH: So how do we do that? If you could wave a magic wand and make certain policies politically feasible, what would actually make a dent in this?

P.N.: On the lifestyle side, things like a levy on aviation that would then be used to fund climate adaptation, for example—the Maldives have proposed this before. A straight polluter-pays tax, if you like: Those generating more of the emissions have to pay for more of the adaptation for those who have caused the problem least.

In behavior-change debates people often talk about “choice-editing” as well. It’s a lot harder to stop people using SUVs or larger vehicles once they’ve got them. It’s far easier to have proper regulations in place to stop carbon-intensive and highly polluting things coming to market in the first place. So, could you imagine restrictions on private jets, for example, or about engine size, or tougher building regulations so you make sure new homes are way more energy efficient?

You have to have a two-pronged approach. For the rich, there may also have to be redistributive measures of some sort. For most of society, it’s about enabling behavior shifts in terms of provision of more public transport or insulating homes—the sort of thing that’s going on with the Inflation Reduction Act in the States or the Green New Deal in Europe. But for those who are overconsuming, there will have to be some taxation and some penalties, frankly, to encourage more social rather than anti-social behaviors.

Then, on the financial side, I think there has to be disclosure of assets in highly polluting activities, regulation of those. And on the political side, greater transparency around things like party contributions and cleaning up the lobbying process—the level of access that corporations and wealthy individuals have to the policy process and their ability to frustrate and stall climate action, which is happening routinely all over the world.

In this report they go further and talk about progressive taxation and straight wealth taxes—i.e., not targeting particular behaviors. I think the key thing, if you’re going to pull off something like that, is that it has to be very clear what it’s going to be used for in order for it to be socially acceptable.

HSH: Is there anything else that you’re dying to say about this topic?

P.N.: We’re just seeing more and more reports like this say very similar things. The conversation now has to move on to what are the politically palatable ways of having these very difficult conversations. What would be the concrete demand?

The authors of this report talk about a “1.5 percent wealth tax for 1.5 degrees.” [A tax to keep levels of warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is one of the preferred thresholds mentioned in the Paris Agreement.] Something like that might have some traction because it’s potentially understandable—but it’s still quite complicated for a lot of people. There’s a big communications job to do around “What does 1.5 degrees mean, anyway?” If you’re going to have a conversation about it on the school playground: Is it important because we want to keep warming below preindustrial levels? There, you’ve already lost someone. So there needs to be clear framing around the purpose of tools and interventions being proposed.

So I welcome this report, but we’ve accumulated enough evidence now. Who’s going to run with this? What’s going to be the concrete demand? Who’s going to own it? That’s what we need to think about now.

This conservation has been edited for length and clarity.

Good News

For the first time, wind and solar produced more power than so-called “natural” gas in the European Union last year.

Bad News

ExxonMobil and Chevron made more money in 2022 than ever before—munch on that every time you’re tempted to think the climate policies in the Inflation Reduction Act might suffice to curb global warming.

Stat of the Week

That’s when the world is likely to cross the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, according to a new study. The study also predicts we now have only a 50 percent chance of avoiding an even more catastrophic two degrees of warming.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

These homes replaced their gas stoves—and saw a huge drop in indoor pollution

Coverage of the health risks of gas stoves has exploded in the past month. The Guardian this week reports on the results of a 96-unit public housing study in the Bronx, where 20 low-income households were given induction stoves to compare indoor air pollution against those with gas.

Researchers performed a controlled cooking test and found that the baseline level of nitrogen oxide (NO2)—which forms in the air from burning fossil fuels—in homes with gas stoves was 18 parts per billion (ppb).

It rose to an average of 197ppb during cooking. That is almost twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) threshold for outdoor exposure deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with respiratory illnesses, seniors and young children.…

(The EPA does not have standards for indoor air pollution, even though Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors.)

In the homes with induction stoves, by comparison, the background NO2 level of 11ppb saw a negligible change to 14ppb during cooking.

Read Aliya Uteuova’s report at The Guardian.

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

You Can Pry My Lead Baby Food From My Weedkiller-Covered Hands

Conservatives are hell-bent on defending gas stoves. Why not other poisonous household products?


Why do culture wars start, and whose fault is it when they do? You may have noticed how quickly gas stoves became a political fault line this month: One U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissioner announced his agency was mulling the mounting evidence that gas stoves are poisoning people, and suddenly a slew of Republicans (and, naturally, Democrats’ own coal baron, Joe Manchin) started tweeting that Joe Biden could pry gas stoves from their cold, dead hands. Overcooking steak on a gas range and posting it to Twitter became a thing to “own the libs.”

This all misses the point, as TNR columnist Liza Featherstone wrote this week, since even a ban on gas stoves (which is not actually happening) wouldn’t result in existing devices being ripped from the walls. Regardless, the point of gas stove regulation is to protect people who don’t want to be poisoned in their homes, not to rob people of their right to get asthma and cancer. In other words: This is really a tenants’ rights issue, and it has nothing to do with the affluent homeowners who seem to have taken deep offense that a government official would dare cut through the decades of advertising that have convinced people that gas stoves are the best (they’re not).

But it’s worth noting that there are a lot of poisonous household products that don’t get this kind of crazed treatment. Earlier this month, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published research from government scientists finding that study participants with high levels of glyphosate—an herbicide found in Roundup weed killer, among many others—in their urine tended to also have signs of oxidative stress, which is an indicator for the possible development of cancer. And this is after the Centers for Disease Control found, last year, that 80 percent of urine samples taken from a representative group of Americans contained measurable amounts of this herbicide. But we have yet to see Tucker Carlson spraying Roundup in his face on live TV to protest hypothetical government overreach. (On Tuesday, the FDA proposed extremely lax limits for the amount of lead companies can include in baby foods. Can we expect some prominent conservative to shovel paint into a toddler’s mouth while screaming, “Take that, AOC!”? I doubt it.)

In seeking to understand why some issues turn into culture wars while others don’t, a lot of people adopt a blame-the-messenger stance; in other words, they blame the activists and politicians trying to alert society to a problem for doing so in an off-putting fashion. This, for example, was the theme of a recent Politico piece suggesting that the United States could pass better climate policy if climate policy weren’t being associated with Democrats, whom voters “view with suspicion.” It was also the thrust of Pamela Paul’s New York Times column seeming to blame vegans for politicizing food.

One problem with this thesis, of course, is that it doesn’t provide much of a model for social change: Asking whistleblowers never to upset people probably isn’t realistic. Moreover, as you’ll read in further coverage at Apocalypse Soon this spring, it’s usually inaccurate to blame activists for these backlashes. When you really look at which issues become culture wars and who benefits, the culprit is rarely, if ever, the moralizing do-gooder caricatured on Fox News every evening.

Good News

Massachusetts legislators are proposing a $300 million Zero Carbon Renovation Fund to help schools, low-income housing, and other municipal buildings swap out fossil fuel–based heating and appliances for electric ones, improve insulation, and more.

Bad News

Norway announced this week that it will offer a record number of fossil fuel exploration blocks (as these delineated territories are called) in the Arctic.

Stat of the Week

A new study in The Lancet finds that implementing the changes to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions—reducing air pollution, modifying diets, etc.—in the United Kingdom would reduce premature deaths and increase public health, resulting in over two million extra years of life nationwide. Read the full study here.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Depleted Under Trump, a “Traumatized” E.P.A. Struggles With Its Mission

You may remember reports of the mass exodus that took place from the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump. Unfortunately, the agency hasn’t recovered. And the consequences could be severe, Lisa Friedman reports, when it comes to finalizing regulations needed to carry out the Biden administration’s climate and environmental goals:

The new rules have to be enacted within the next 18 months—lightning speed in the regulatory world—or they could be overturned by a new Congress or administration.

The regulations are already delayed months past E.P.A.’s own self-imposed deadlines, raising concerns from supporters in Congress and environmental groups. “It’s very fair to say we are not where we hoped we’d be,” said Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents most state and local air regulators.

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

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

Davos Still Sucks

How can the World Economic Forum earnestly pretend to address global crises while being funded by the corporations that fuel these crises?

Attendees look toward the right under a World Economic Forum logo.
The World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos on January 17, 2023

The annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos used to be a better party, The Washington Post reports this week. “A decade ago, political power brokers and corporate bigwigs gathered here in the Swiss Alps under an upbeat theme,” Ishaan Tharoor writes. “It was time for ‘resilient dynamism,’ declared the organizers of the 2013 meeting.… Ten years on, there seems to be less optimism.”

Well. I should jolly well hope so. Tharoor notes attendees’ concerns this year: “war, climate catastrophe, energy price chaos, inflation, epidemics of hunger and disease, political instability and widening inequity.”

These are serious issues. They’re also issues that many of the corporations bankrolling the World Economic Forum have contributed to, with abandon. They’re issues they have lobbied governments to keep from addressing rigorously—for fear strong policies will interfere with their business models.

Shell, whose internal emails show it was never particularly serious about reducing emissions, is a WEF partner. So is Chevron—the company that’s dedicated over a decade to persecuting a single lawyer who it blames for making it pay up after its subsidiary Texaco poisoned Indigenous lands in the Ecuadorian Amazon. So are Cargill, Tyson, and JBS—who together control a staggering percentage of U.S. meat production, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory during the pandemic, and whose industry is well known for obstructing climate policy.

This is a bleak game one could play for hours with the WEF’s member and partner lists. The very same day Tharoor’s story published, a new report dropped showing that the biggest banks on the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero’s “net-zero banking alliance grouping” have in fact continued to finance fossil fuel expansion, to the tune of $270 billion. The list of those banks contains a lot of familiar names.

“One of the biggest banks involved in GFANZ is HSBC,” The Guardian reported on Tuesday, “which announced restrictions on oil and gas financing last month. But it has approved 58 transactions worth $12bn in capital to fossil fuel developers, since joining a GFANZ grouping in April 2021, according to the Reclaim Finance report.” Wouldn’t you know it? HSBC is a WEF partner too.

The list of corporations behind the annual Davos bash is not a tangential issue. While WEF has certainly hosted some serious people over the years, the organization is fundamentally funded by its corporate members and partners, for the purpose of “bring[ing] together decision-makers from across society to work on projects and initiatives that make a real difference,” per the statement on WEF’s website. Bringing together decision-makers is, of course, a polite way of saying that CEOs get to hang out in a Swiss resort with world leaders all week. So while they self-describe as a group that can solve the world’s problems (their stated goal is to have a “positive impact at all levels of society”), it’s not exactly surprising that over the years, the forum has largely spotlighted free-market solutions that corporations like. (As the conservative British magazine The Spectator noted this week, giving top corporations weeklong access to the world’s most powerful policymakers “is the picture-perfect example, not of free market capitalism, but of crony capitalism.”)

So apparently Davos is less fun these days now that attendees feel a sense of “permacrisis” and are no longer so sure that globalization is winning. That gloomy mood is probably for the best: There is no reason these particular people should be feeling good about themselves and their track record running world affairs. And hey, maybe if this party gets depressing enough, it’ll be canceled next year altogether. For all WEF’s talk about Davos being a “carbon neutral” event, the fact remains that private jet emissions quadrupled during Davos 2022 as compared to an average week. That’s one thing you could genuinely say the forum excels at: hot air.

Good News

Finally, finally, the Federal Reserve has directed the nation’s six largest banks to figure out and disclose what sort of effect climate change could have on their portfolios. It’s not much, as Fed action on climate change goes, but it’s a start.

Bad News

Faulty arguments about whale conservation are being deployed against offshore wind installations, instead of an acknowledgment that the main threat to whales comes from boats and climate change, according to this in-depth report from Clare Fieseler at the Post and Courier.

Stat of the Week

That’s the proportion of forest carbon offsets from the world’s leading offset provider, Verra, that turn out to be totally useless, according to a new analysis.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Assessing ExxonMobil’s Global Warming Projections

If you haven’t read at least the top summary of the buzzy new piece out in Science—about how ExxonMobil’s internal predictions about climate change in the 1970s and ’80s were actually extremely accurate—it’s worth your time. (The top, shaded portion is very user-friendly, even if reading scientific papers isn’t usually your jam, and right now it’s not behind a paywall.)

In 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon oil company has known since the late 1970s that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”… Many of the uncovered fossil fuel industry documents include explicit projections of the amount of warming expected to occur over time in response to rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Yet, these numerical and graphical data have received little attention.…

Our results show that in private and academic circles since the late 1970s and early 1980s, ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully. Using established statistical techniques, we find that 63 to 83% of the climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists were accurate in predicting subsequent global warming.

Read G. Supran, S. Rahmstorf, and N. Oreskes’s article in Science.

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

Meghan and Harry, Welcome to America’s Climate Crisis

Torrential rains, flooding, and mudslides in California are a preview of an alarming future.

A home, several vehicles, and trees stand flooded with water all around them.
Aerial view of a flooded home partially underwater in Gilroy, California, on January 9

If you’ve visited the home page of a major newspaper in the past week, you’ve probably noticed that the intensity of coverage of British royal family dysfunction is vertiginously approaching that of the war in Ukraine or U.S. congressional mayhem. That’s unsettling enough, but it’s been equally jarring to see the state of California pop up continually in stories about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—without a mention of the fact that it’s currently a disaster zone.

Montecito, where the couple has made their home, came under mandatory evacuation order on Monday due to the ongoing catastrophic rains hitting the state. Harry and Meghan’s representatives did not respond to the Los Angeles Timesrequest for comment as to whether they had complied with the order—a missed opportunity for the couple, arguably, given that climate change is something of a signature issue for them.

Montecito’s disproportionately wealthy residents have had it relatively easy, despite the mudslide warning that went out Monday. Seventeen deaths have been reported across California in the recent rains. Huge portions of Northern California are under flood watch, while hundreds of thousands have experienced power outages and over 135,000 remained without power as of Wednesday morning. A sinkhole opened up under two cars in Los Angeles on Monday, while a 5-year-old child was swept away in floodwaters in San Miguel. The unusual rainfall could continue for the next week, making landslides even more likely.

These kinds of wild weather swings are becoming more frequent as climate change accelerates. Atmospheric rivers (the term for this kind of massive rain band) “are becoming more intense with climate change because they’re holding more moisture,” extreme weather expert Katerina Gonzales told Scientific American this week. And they won’t necessarily reverse the state’s drought problem, she added, given that groundwater takes a long time to be refilled. “We can’t rely on atmospheric rivers to save us. California has wet and dry extremes—that’s our current reality and our future.”

This pattern of fires then floods is basically the worst-case scenario in terms of mudslide conditions, and it’s a scenario a study last April warned of explicitly. Experts are now predicting the California floods could cost several billion dollars once concluded—part of a new trend of billion-dollar disasters striking not an average of three times a year, like in the 1980s, but perhaps over 20 times a year, as happened in 2020.

None of what’s currently happening in California, it’s worth mentioning, begins to approach the scale of the devastation of the floods in Pakistan this summer and early fall. But with news breaking Tuesday that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.3 percent in 2022 despite growth in renewable energy, it’s a devastating reminder that we still aren’t doing anywhere near enough.

Good News

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to tighten regulations on fine-particulate air pollution—a move projected to save tens of thousands of lives a year. (All the usual suspects, Kate Aronoff notes, are lining up to protest this life-saving measure.)

Bad News

The Intercept obtained and published footage this week of the crash caused by a Tesla Model S allegedly under control of the “Full Self-Driving Feature” on the San Francisco Bay Bridge on Thanksgiving Day. The car changes lanes and then abruptly brakes for no apparent reason, causing a multivehicle pileup. It’s pretty nightmarish viewing and doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Tesla’s recent efforts to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive electric vehicle market.

Stat of the Week

That’s how much extreme weather cost the United States in 2022.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The New Soldiers in Propane’s Fight Against Climate Action: Television Stars

As the U.S. wakes up to the dangers, both climate-wise and health-wise, of using natural gas and propane in home heating and cooking, the industry is fighting back, paying influencers to talk about how propane is beautiful while electric appliances and vehicles suck. The Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi has the goods:

The Propane Education and Research Council, or PERC, which is funded by propane providers across the country, has spent millions of dollars on “provocative anti-electrification messaging” for TV, print and social media, using influencers like Mr. Blashaw, according to the group’s internal documents viewed by The New York Times.

As a federally sanctioned trade association, PERC is allowed to collect fees on propane sales, which helps fund its marketing campaigns. But according to the law that created this system, that money is supposed to be used for things like research and safety.

Read Hiroko Tabuchi’s piece at The New York Times.

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

The Most Important New Year’s Resolution for Climate

Changing your personal habits won’t change the world, but there are other benefits to doing so.

Environmental activist Rob Greenfield
Environmental activist Rob Greenfield last year walked around Beverly Hills, California, wearing a suit filled with every piece of trash he had generated living and consuming like a typical American for one month.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe famously adopts two new climate-friendly habits each year—“not because I think they’re going to change the course of climate change as I know it,” she told Christian Science Monitor in 2021, “but because it enables me to be consistent with my values and it gives me joy.”

One new habit could be reducing meat consumption, given that animal agriculture produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Or it could be reducing food waste, which accounts for more emissions nationally than the entire airline industry. You could switch to reusable grocery bags rather than plastic or eliminate plastic packaging from bathroom products (as Hayhoe herself decided to do in 2020). Or cut your energy bill with some combination of LED lights, adding insulation via curtains or door sweeps, turning down the thermostat a few degrees in winter, or even installing a heat pump—hey, there are good tax incentives for that now!

One of the advantages of this approach is that it encourages people to make small, incremental changes rather than getting overwhelmed by guilt about the amount of emissions and consumption baked into everyday life. Bigger, systemic changes like winding down fossil fuel production are vastly more important than an individual’s plastic use (although the fossil fuel industry has poured a lot of money into trying to convince people otherwise, popularizing the term “carbon footprint” to try to convince people that climate change is a matter of personal rather than corporate malfeasance). As Hayhoe frequently reminds audiences and readers, talking about climate change, joining an organization fighting climate change, and advocating for political solutions remain the most important actions an individual can take.

But the idea of adopting two climate-friendly habits is a welcome reminder that there isn’t actually any inherent tension between advocating for those bigger changes and living your values. In fact, living your values while advocating for bigger society-wide changes can help ease your climate anxiety in a productive way.

There’s also a way to fuse those different types of action: for example, deciding to make a small change in how you talk about climate change. I bring this up because, while the last Apocalypse Soon newsletter focused on some of the huge breakthroughs on climate in 2022, the United States is also starting 2023 in the shadow of one of politicians’ big failures of 2022: not including policy to directly wind down fossil fuels in last year’s historic climate package.

In the wake of that bittersweet triumph, Aaron Regunberg wrote about the need for ordinary people to start talking about just how much the fossil fuel industry has done and continues to do to keep the world hooked on planet-killing fuels—despite having known for decades that these fuels are heating the planet.

This isn’t to say that pointing out the bare facts of the fossil fuel industry’s deception is the best way to start a climate conversation with an avowed skeptic. But a lot of people who’d self-identify as being concerned about the climate may still be unaware of how far the industry’s reach extends (into think tanks and academia, for instance—the very institutions producing the papers that politicians then base their decisions on) and how much the industry has influenced our current understanding of what reasonable climate policy looks like. Anyone, for example, who thinks that climate policy is generally a good idea, but also thinks that we need to increase domestic gas production to counter Russia, is unwittingly parroting experts funded in part by ExxonMobil, as Kate Aronoff pointed out last year.

One way to start off 2023 on the right foot, and increase public support for more direct and substantive climate policy, would be, as Aaron wrote, “naming and shaming the agencies and creative professionals that produce fossil fuel propaganda.” Or reminding people in each discussion how our ideas of what’s politically possible are shaped by that propaganda. Or calling out politicians who continue to accept money from this industry. “If we want to save the world,” Aaron wrote, “we need to break the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on power.” That may involve turning over a new rhetorical leaf.

Good News

The Biden administration on Friday moved to re-expand the definition of waterways protected under the Clean Water Act to include ephemeral streams and ponds, reversing the Trump administration curtailment in 2019. The move helps limit agricultural, commercial, and industrial runoff; corporations, however, say it’s unfairly expensive to expect them not to poison these waterways.

Bad News

The Biden administration is running out of time to finalize EPA rules if it wants to defend them in court. Unless it moves quickly, a lot of new environmental rules could be reversed by a new president and Congress in 2025. Read Jean Chemnick’s piece on this at Climatewire.

Stat of the Week

That’s the amount of nationwide food waste that comes from households, i.e., not restaurants, stores, or farms. Read Susan Shain’s excellent story about food waste—which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions—and how central Ohio is trying to reduce it, at The New York Times.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Accountability Is the Most Important Climate Solution

As Republicans prepare to take over the House, vital work from the House Oversight Committee’s investigation of the fossil fuel industry’s role funding disinformation about the climate crisis could be stymied. In addition to providing some suggestions for how to avoid that, climate journalist Amy Westervelt this week offered a stirring defense of accountability, writ large, and the need for it in plans to save the planet:

Whenever I talk about accountability a certain type of well-bred elitist tends to bristle. There’s no need to blame, they say, or point fingers. Singling out villains is backwards, archaic, it smacks of eye-for-an-eye approaches to justice and it lets everyone else off the hook. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of accountability and the critical role it plays in formulating effective solutions.

Catastrophic climate change is a symptom of an intertwined web of problems. Untangling that web and the various forces that created it is not just a worthy exercise, it’s absolutely critical to developing solutions that actually work. The focus on technological and policy solutions to climate has put the cart before the horse, and in doing so, created a solutions framework that is hopelessly inadequate. Americans in particular have a tendency to skip right over accountability and straight to “solutions,” but failing to understand how a problem came about in the first place tends to deliver … not solutions, but new problems. And on climate, examples of that abound.

People talk about “the energy transition” as an aspirational, future phase, for example, which ignores the fact that we’ve just spent the past 20 years living through an energy transition, one that required major investments in infrastructure, a new distribution system, all of that. The conversion of U.S. energy sources from coal to natural gas was a massive transition, on par with the transition currently being proposed from fossil fuels to renewables. But we don’t often talk about it that way, which means we miss key lessons from that transition: simply swapping in one energy source for another, focusing on only one greenhouse gas, and allowing the fossil fuel industry to drive and manage that transition were all enormous missteps.

Read Amy Westervelt’s piece in her Drilled newsletter.

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

This Year’s Big Breakthroughs on Climate

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2022.

Two people in polar bear suits hold hands while dancing.
Climate activists protest in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, during the COP27 climate conference.

It’s been a heck of a year for climate coverage. It started, don’t forget, with fears that any chance of robust climate policy passing Congress might be dead, courtesy of Senator Joe Manchin’s 340th reversal. Now, as 2022 closes, climate advocates can look back on some key victories, from the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—climate legislation with a politically conciliatory name—to America’s eleventh-hour decision to support climate financing for vulnerable countries at the U.N. climate conference known as COP27.

But the IRA on its own won’t be enough to meet climate targets, and some developments this year were more damaging—like the blockage of climate-conscious monetary policy, the Supreme Court’s ruling against Environmental Protection Agency regulations, or the growing Republican hysteria about Wall Street firms “discriminating” against fossil fuel—and a lot remains up in the air. So how should we think about the past 12 months of whiplash? Here are some of the most prescient and insightful pieces we published on these topics, which may help make sense of the year as it closes.

The first big piece of climate news didn’t seem like climate news: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But weaning Europe off Russian gas triggered a wave of climate-relevant consequences, from a new focus on energy efficiency in Germany (good), to the U.S. frenetically green-lighting a bunch of new natural gas exports and even considering new liquid natural gas terminals (bad). New gas infrastructure, Kate Aronoff pointed out in a series of pieces on the crisis in February, won’t come online fast enough to help out this winter, and natural gas leaks an astonishing quantity of methane at every phase of the production and consumption process.

The first quarter of 2022 closed with more bad news: Joe Manchin blocking the nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin, an advocate for sensible regulations like climate stress tests and emissions disclosures, to the Federal Reserve. Kate reported on a gas conference Manchin attended immediately before announcing his opposition, noting that Manchin slipped up and referred to the assembled fossil fuel execs as “we.” (The pronoun was not entirely inaccurate, given his profits from the coal sector.) Aaron Regunberg later wrote about the many ways the Fed is “neglecting its duty” on climate change.

As the spring ticked onward with Manchin still holding up climate policy, Mary Annaïse Heglar voiced the frustration of many, persuasively arguing that it was time to stop calling climate prevaricators “centrists”:

Centrist is no longer the right moniker for politicians who want to “compromise” with the radical right. Centrist implies reasonable—someone willing to meet in the middle and consider many approaches to reach a goal. But at this stage, if you’re in favor of new fossil fuel infrastructure when all the science says that’s a death sentence, what exactly is your goal?

News that Manchin had finally compromised, allowing climate policy to pass in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, triggered a wave of celebration in climate circles—but also disappointment, as the bill included support for fossil fuel drilling and hazy notions like climate-smart farming. Aaron Regunberg succinctly summed up the cognitive dissonance. “Though I personally cried tears of joy as I held my 18-month-old son in my arms to watch the IRA’s passage—because I believe this last-minute buzzer-beater of a climate win greatly brightens the previously grim terrain on which we’ll spend our lives fighting for a livable future,” he wrote, “I also think the contradictions of this bitter triumph offer important insights for the work we have ahead of us.” The act contained no direct policy to wind down fossil fuels—a place for activists to focus their efforts in the future.

This year brought two more big surprises on the climate change front. First came the midterms, where the so-called “red wave” failed to materialize, preserving the IRA from rollbacks that a Republican Congress might have enacted. Liza Featherstone wrote about one possible lesson from the November exit polls: Voters care more about climate change than previously thought, and Democrats might want to start capitalizing on that.

Then, at COP27, the United States reversed decades of intransigence and agreed to support a new fund for the damage poorer countries suffer from richer countries’ emissions. Kate Aronoff examined how, exactly, this came to happen, and what remains unknown going forward.

Finally, no recap of 2022’s mixed legacy on science and science policy would be complete without talking about Covid-19. Back in February, TNR regular Melody Schreiber pointed out the increasing radicalism of the anti-mask movement, particularly with regard to children. The politicization of masking has come back to haunt the country this fall and winter, as pediatric wards are overflowing with respiratory syncytial virus, flu, and Covid cases. “Many of the preventative measures proven effective during the Covid-19 pandemic are going broadly unused,” Vox recently reported. In May, Melody reported the troubling implications of rapid Covid reinfection, which meant people recently recovered from Covid could contract it again just a few months later. All of this was ignored when President Biden declared the pandemic “over.” At the time, Melody pointed out that this proclamation was likely to sabotage uptake of the new bivalent boosters. Months later, uptake of these boosters remains low.

We published a lot of terrific pieces that aren’t named here, including powerful personal essays and meditations on the contradictions of media coverage in the era of climate crisis. As always, you can find more pieces at the Apocalypse Soon vertical on The New Republic’s website.

Good News

The breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology announced by the Department of Energy on Tuesday is pretty cool. (Just don’t expect it to save us from the urgent problem of energy transition to limit global warming. Putting this discovery to use will probably take a few decades, and we need to transition off fossil fuels before that.)

Bad News

Solar installations have slowed, despite the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Stat of the Week

1 in 100

That’s the proportion of heart disease deaths that a new study says can be tied to extreme temperatures. (Read the Axios write-up here.)

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Unearthing the Original Mediterranean Diet

This feature from Hakai Magazine is so cool. Journalist Paul Greenberg follows archaeologist Dimitra Mylona, who’s taken to counting fish bones at ancient sites to show that, contrary to popular belief, ancient Mediterranean societies ate a lot of fish. Incidentally, this could also overturn current assumptions about the Mediterranean naturally being low in nutrients. “Because few rivers flow into the Mediterranean,” Greenberg writes, “the sea is considered nutrient-starved and described as containing little phytoplanktonic life—oligotrophic in scientific parlance.” But now not just archaeologists but marine biologists are reconsidering that.

“I don’t accept this idea that the Mediterranean is a poor sea,” [marine biologist Daniel] Pauly tells me. “This is what people always say—few rivers going into the sea to deliver the nutrients. But we know from Roman records that there was probably a significant population of gray whales in the sea. That these whales brought in nutrients from the wider Atlantic, and through their feces fertilized the sea,” Pauly says. What happened to these whales? “The Romans likely killed them all. Everywhere you look, we have evidence of a more abundant sea.” Sharks are not abundant in the Med, but that’s today. “We just did an analysis of film taken by the Austrian cinematographer Hans Hass in 1942. There are sharks everywhere.”

Read Paul Greenberg’s piece at Hakai Magazine.

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

The Depressing Reality Behind Prince William’s Earthshot Prize

The same day Earthshot awarded $1.2 million to start-up Notpla and its petroleum-free seaweed packaging, negotiations to curb plastics production failed miserably.

David Beckham stands in front of a screen reading "Build a Waste-Free World."
Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images/Getty Images
David Beckham announces Notpla’s winning of the “Build a Waste-Free World” Earthshot prize.

In a celebrity-crusted ceremony in Boston on last week, start-up Notpla received one of the coveted $1.2 million awards from Prince William’s Earthshot prize for developing a biodegradable plastic alternative out of seaweed. “We’re hoping to make single-use plastic a thing of the past,” one of the founders said in a video introduced by David Beckham. Notpla’s small team cheered wildly from London as the award was announced, and the audience was treated to a video about Notpla’s remarkable discovery. “You guys have gone from kitchen experiments to a potentially world-changing solution,” BBC Radio host Clara Amfo said.

Meanwhile in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that same evening, the first meeting of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, or INC, to develop a binding agreement to reduce plastic pollution ended in failure. More than 40 countries of a so-called High Ambition Coalition—including European Union member states, Uruguay, Burkina Faso, the Republic of Korea, and others—had pressed for instituting mandatory global restrictions on plastics production. The United States, along with a few other top plastic- and petrochemical-producing countries, opposed this, suggesting instead that efforts be purely voluntary and country by country.

The parallels between plastics and fossil fuels, and between the INC failures in Uruguay and those of the U.N. climate talks at COP27 in Egypt, are grotesquely clear at this point. Plastics, as TNR staff writer Kate Aronoff reminded readers back in 2020, are petroleum-based products that the fossil fuel industry has strategically promoted to insulate itself from oil market crises. In fact, increasing plastics production, rather than decreasing it, is one way the industry has plotted to stay profitable as renewable energy gets cheaper and governments around the world start to do something about global warming, which the industry has knowingly been fueling for decades.

Given that the planet is observably drowning in trash, convincing governments to support increased plastics production requires lobbying. Just as fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27—a conference ostensibly geared at emissions reductions—in staggering numbers, so did the INC meeting in Uruguay include representatives from the plastics industry who talked a lot about how great and essential plastics are.

The tough truth about fossil fuels and plastics—despite the Earthshot prize’s glossy, glamorous, and upbeat tone—is that neither one is likely to be rendered obsolete by a brilliant new invention. Notpla is not the only start-up to come up with a biodegradable alternative to plastic products. “Corn plastic” has been around for decades and has recently become cheap enough that even Walmart is starting to use it.

Several reports this week underlined how new technology and market forces alone won’t solve existential crises. Solar is set to overtake coal in energy generation within five years, the International Energy Agency announced this week. Renewables will be the largest source of electrical power by 2025. These would be stunning successes. And they still won’t be enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Even if wind and solar stay on track to produce a 57 percent decline in power-sector emissions by 2050, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance calculated, we’d still reach 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming—triggering cataclysmic consequences.

None of this is to suggest that new, more sustainable products aren’t good news. But with both fossil fuels and plastics, production simply needs to be curtailed. Otherwise these industries will do everything in their power to ensure new technologies add to the existing supply of dirty energy or plastic packaging, rather than replacing petroleum’s role.

The U.S. government is still blocking international progress on this. Changing that will take work on a lot of different fronts. But in the meantime, banning industry representatives from these conferences wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Good News

The EU on Tuesday settled on a new law forbidding the import of goods linked to deforestation.

Bad News

Countries are badly underestimating the amount of methane emitted by “agricultural ponds” filled with manure and fertilizer runoff.

Stat of the Week


A survey of people living in coastal counties in the United States found surprisingly high support for offshore wind—a sign that Nimby stances on this issue might be waning.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The Texas Group Waging a National Crusade Against Climate Action

Don’t miss this profile of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to halting climate policy. The TPPF has had its hand in a stunning number of pies over the past few years, from blocking a wind project off Martha’s Vineyard (hiding behind the fishing industry, of course) to blaming Biden for high gas prices; from spreading lies about the Texas blackouts to airing promotional videos for a power generating station credibly accused of poisoning the surrounding countryside. Naturally, having a lot of money helps with these projects:

As the organization’s profile grew, donations ballooned from $4.7 million in 2010 to $25.6 million in 2021, the most recent year for which records are available. That allowed the group to expand its mandate far beyond the Lone Star state.

The foundation said much of its funding comes from individuals. Because it is a nonprofit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not required to disclose its donors. But publicly available tax filings show that the group has received money from fossil fuel companies including the coal giant Peabody Energy, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Read David Gelles’s piece at The New York Times.

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