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

Fight Climate Change by Doing Less

Resist the misconception that sustainable living means more work.

A person relaxes on a beach with a book.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, I promised this newsletter would have more to say about the emotional sustainability of climate coverage and climate activism—which seems to be a theme of late. In the wake of the most recent U.N. climate report, for example, several prominent voices in the climate space have returned to the question of how to frame climate news optimistically, so that people don’t feel too overwhelmed.

In a world where fossil fuel executives, meat megacorporations, and the like possess vastly more wealth and power than activists, tone probably isn’t the primary challenge in climate communication, as Kate Aronoff argued last week. At the same time, it’s true that sustainability continues to have the reputation of being a lot of work. And that’s a fascinating conundrum—because despite the plethora of popular articles promising five, 10, 12, 20, 22, 40, 58, or 101 ways to live more sustainably and fight climate change, a lot of the easy answers about how to live more sustainably involve doing less.

Four years ago, climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar penned a classic essay at Vox about being tired of people confessing their environmental sins to her. Too often, she wrote, people feel they need to “convert to 100 percent solar energy, ride an upcycled bike everywhere, stop flying, eat vegan,” or else they’re bad environmentalists. “And all this raises the price of admission to the climate movement to an exorbitant level, often pricing out people of color and other marginalized groups.” Personal action isn’t irrelevant in the fight for a livable future, she wrote, but it’s not the best place to focus one’s efforts, particularly if people then get overwhelmed and stop at the personal—neglecting to vote for robust climate policies because they’re so busy trying to find a place to recycle those pesky plastic bags.

A lot of people clearly feel sustainable living means doing more: taking more time to sort recycling or buying special reusable containers, sourcing clothes from thrift shops or researching the most sustainable varieties of seafood. A lot of people also want guidance about how to live more sustainably (how to have a more sustainable yard, for example, was one question I recently heard raised in a meeting) but feel intimidated by the amount of work it might require (killing off your grass and installing a bunch of native plants is pretty daunting for nongardeners).

But let’s take that sustainable yard question as a good case study. Sure, there’s a case for killing off your grass, planting a meadow of native plants, as The New York Times recently urged to ward off the insect apocalypse, or even adding a frog pond, as Emma Marris suggested at The Atlantic. But if you’re not ready or equipped to do that, there really is one easy trick to make your yard more sustainable: Do less. Mow it less frequently—the estimates on emissions from gas-powered lawn mowers vary, but all of them are staggering (greater than a car operating for an equivalent amount of time), and longer grass is more hospitable to insects and other wildlife anyway. Apply pesticides or herbicides less frequently—the runoff is terrible for watersheds (in fact, that might be an easier way to help amphibians than installing a frog pond). If you’re in a water-strapped part of the country, water it less frequently.

Greater effort doesn’t necessarily mean greater environmental friendliness. This holds for so many other things as well, like clothes shopping. Donating your clothing or looking for sustainably produced labels has some serious limits, as recent reporting on the deluge of unused clothing donations and greenwashing of the fashion industry has shown. The real way to dress sustainably, as a growing number of experts acknowledge, is simply to buy less. The real way to make your commute more sustainable may not be to spend hours researching and then financing the latest e-bike, but to work less—by pushing for a four-day workweek, as Kate wrote about last year.

You’d think that this would be a popular “solution” in a world where people are always bemoaning how little time they have, how little cash they have, how bad inflation has gotten. Yet “do less” isn’t always what people want to hear. Perhaps that’s because “do less” has a hint of austerity to it or because doing less may require swimming against the flow of a culture obsessed with aesthetics. Try doing or not doing anything remotely unorthodox with your lawn in a neighborhood with a neurotic homeowners’ association, and see how that goes. (Although, that being said, this Maryland couple sued those bougie troglodytes and won, so there’s hope.) Buying fewer clothes means ignoring the pressure to engage in competitive social signaling.

Yet it’s worth remembering that it’s precisely this culture of aesthetics over substance that the corporations driving climate change have relied on again and again: by championing the idea of a personal “carbon footprint” in the first place, to make people feel guilty about their own lifestyles instead of questioning fossil fuel companies’ culpability; by marketing gas stoves as a lifestyle upgrade or plastics as convenient and more pleasant to use; by trend-churning to force seasonal purchases; and a multitude of other examples.

If individual consumers are going to take on the task of fighting all this, perhaps the least they can do for themselves is—instead of adding 20 items to their to-do lists and shaming themselves for falling short—choose the path that saves them time and money, by rejecting the cult of aesthetics in the first place. There’s beauty in that too.

Good News

Renewable electricity generation surpassed coal in this country for the first time in 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.

Bad News

Over a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine catapulted heat pumps and home insulation to the top of the Western European political agenda—to save on winter fuel—an independent report has found that the United Kingdom only “stuttered further” in 2022 on its path to energy efficiency. The chair of the independent commission blamed insufficient funding and an overreliance on “low-stakes incremental changes” and called for bolder policies. “The risk of delay in addressing climate change,” he said, “is now greater than the risk of over-correction.”

Stat of the Week

That’s the degree to which stricter limits on fine-particulate-matter air pollution could reduce mortality rates among older Black and low-income people in the U.S, according to a new study. Read the New York Times write-up here.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The Gospel of Disaster

Slate has a pretty wild story this week about the Christian relief organizations that are stepping up to the plate to help communities recover from climate disasters when the Federal Emergency Management Agency fails to get the job done (unfortunately a frequent occurrence, due to persistent underfunding):

The Christian relief organizations that have stepped in as first responders—with little oversight—are diverse, spanning from well-intentioned community churches with decades of goodwill to billion-dollar evangelical charities that use far-right outrage to fundraise and take advantage of disaster to spread their gospel.

The overwhelming majority of these organizations’ on-the-ground volunteers serve out of genuine compassion. But some of the country’s largest disaster charities are helmed by far-right extremist leaders who encourage volunteers to make proselytization a main part of their mission, bragging in press releases about how many disaster victims “prayed to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” For Samaritan’s Purse, that leader is president and CEO Franklin Graham, the evangelical titan who has called Islam a violent religion, compared trans people with pedophiles, and praised Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies, saying LGBT people will burn in “the flames of hell.”

Read Nick Aspinwall’s story at Slate.

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

Five Ways to Force Washington to Pass Better Climate Policies

A roundup of ideas for how to break fossil fuels’ hold over the country’s dysfunctional political system

Joe Manchin gesticulates while speaking.
Tom Williams/Getty Images
Coal baron Joe Manchin, in his day job as U.S. senator

The bottom line of the dire new U.N. climate report this week is that our current policies to reduce emissions aren’t enough. The Summary for Policymakers released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasizes that while we have lowered our projected emissions trajectory a bit (here’s a useful graph), we’re still on track for at least three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100—a truly disastrous scenario. Limiting warming to 1.5 or two degrees, which is still globally disruptive, would require major policy changes almost immediately. “Every decision from here on out matters,” Ketan Joshi wrote at TNR in response to the report. And decisions like last week’s approval of the Willow project in Alaska need to stop: “Every next step must be a step where emissions fall.”

That’s going to be tough. As illustrated by the Willow decision and the battle over last year’s big climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, it is really hard to get a majority of lawmakers to take a “no new fossil fuels” position. But there’s no shortage of ideas about how to change that. Here are five that have been proposed at TNR and elsewhere.

Mobilizing nonvoting environmentalists. One of the big reasons often given for American politicians’ lack of ambitious climate policy is that politicians need to get elected, and there just aren’t enough climate-first voters to keep climate-first politicians in power. (This is one of the rationales, presumably, behind Joe Biden’s demonstrable tack to the center ahead of 2024.)

Liza Featherstone, however, spoke last year to members of a nonprofit that thinks all that could change very rapidly. “The polls are right that there are not enough climate-first voters to scare politicians,” Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project told her. But those polls look at likely voters. And EVP’s research has found that “far more nonvoters list climate as their top priority.” Nonvoting environmentalists, Liza reported, “tend to be young, low-income, or people of color. All those groups vote less than other demographics.” And EVP is betting that helping those people get to the polls via registration, reminders, and transport—rather than earlier climate activists’ attempts at persuading skeptics—might be the way to sway elections.

Liza followed up on this topic after the midterms and found that in the 2022 midterms, “more ‘climate voters,’ people whose top issue is the climate crisis, showed up to cast ballots than in any other election in U.S. history.” There’s a lesson here, she concluded: “Climate voters exist, and Democrats should stop campaigning—and governing—as if they do not.”

Getting fossil fuel money out of politics. Joe Manchin’s frequent obstruction of policies that would transition us off fossil fuels isn’t exactly a mystery, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff has pointed out many times. The West Virginia Democrat gets a lot of both his personal income and his political donations from the fossil fuel industry. And while most of the top recipients of such donations are Republicans, Joe Manchin isn’t the only Democrat raking in oil and gas money! Even at the state level, as Meaghan Winter pointed out in 2019, energy companies wield a tremendous amount of power over politics via political donations.

Fixing this starts with increasing awareness. Media organizations should mention whether a politician receives significant fossil fuel donations when reporting on that politician’s positions on climate change. People can also check the OpenSecrets database to see how much their elected representatives are receiving. Then there are pledges that have circulated in recent years, by which politicians can commit to reject such donations. There’s evidence that these pledges make a difference: “Prior to signing the pledge,” The Guardian reported during the 2020 election, “nearly all of the 2020 Democratic candidates took money from fossil fuel executives, other employees and via political action committees.”

To build momentum, Aaron Regunberg argued last year, activists could “start stigmatizing fossil fuel enablers wherever they exist”—not just the politicians who take donations. Or, of course, there’s always Kate Aronoff’s “one quick trick for curbing the fossil fuel industry’s political influence”: nationalization.

Getting fossil fuel money out of policy. The oil and gas industry influences politics in more subtle ways, for instance by funding a lot of the research from which policies get drafted. ExxonMobil has routinely given six-figure sums to Brookings, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and similar D.C. think tanks, Kate Aronoff reported in 2021. That’s something that ought to be disclosed when experts from those think tanks write blog posts denouncing investigative exposés of the company, as happened that year, or get quoted about how increased gas exports could help Ukraine—a frequent occurrence in 2022.

The divestment campaign at universities is also picking up steam, as people realize just how much climate research at top-tier research institutions is funded by fossil fuels. Recently, Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research calculated that six fossil fuel companies alone had probably spent $700 million funding research at 27 different U.S. universities between 2010 and 2020—something that ought to be taken into account, the authors argued, when considering the research those universities produced favoring things like carbon capture, a questionable climate “solution” that the industry loves because it allows it to continue with its core business model. If you’re interested in a particularly chilling case study in this process, don’t miss Kate Aronoff’s look at Ernest Moniz—the MIT professor emeritus, Obama alum, and former Biden adviser who has built a substantial portion of his career taking fossil fuel money and churning out emissions-heavy “all of the above” energy policies.

The rights-of-nature movement. Climate journalist Amy Westervelt recently wrote about this for Orion magazine. Given that the Inflation Reduction Act is the most ambitious climate policy that the U.S. has ever passed—in fact, it almost didn’t pass—and yet the final form lacked any mechanism for reducing fossil fuels, she writes, there’s a strong case for “rethinking our decision-making framework altogether so that maybe, eventually, we have a shot at not repeating the same damn mistakes over and over for the next century.”

The rights-of-nature movement, she points out—which emerged from Indigenous approaches—offers a way to modify the Western legal system to make more room for the kind of policies we need in the current era. The framework doesn’t just grant “ecosystems the right to survive and thrive” but also “grants the communities surrounding those ecosystems the ability to protect those rights.” And in so doing, she argues, it would fix the “fatal flaw in the U.S. operating system”: the “social contract” theory that, in the end, has assigned vastly more rights to corporations and individuals than to the community or the resources that community needs. “Rights of nature kicks that idea to the curb. No person or entity is more important than its ecosystem, no one gets out of their obligation to protect it.”

Making climate a local issue. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has written extensively about how even some climate skeptics can be won over if you start by talking about local weather patterns. Often, they’ve noticed that weather is getting weirder, and they’re concerned. That’s an underutilized technique when it comes to politics, as well, Liza Featherstone argued ahead of last year’s midterms. Primary challengers who talk about climate not in national terms but in terms more immediately relevant to their potential constituents—hurricanes, water shortages, wildfires—often get more traction than the political establishment might have predicted.

TNR politics reporter Grace Segers also noticed this trend when it came to the general election, when many Democrats shied away from the climate topic in a way that may have cost them winnable votes:

This data suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom that candidates should focus solely on “kitchen table” economic issues, talking about climate change could help boost turnout for Democrats. But given the nuances of individual elections, that rhetoric may be most effective if it is tailored to the particular races they are trying to win and the voters they are hoping to convince.

Good News

The European Commission has proposed new rules to crack down on corporate greenwashing in the EU, by making companies substantiate vague claims like “climate neutral” that they might slap on labels to entice customers.

Bad News

Oil executives are preparing to spend big on new offshore oil projects in the next two years, as new investments rise “to levels not seen in a decade,” Climatewire reports.

Stat of the Week

No, you’re not imagining it if you feel your allergies are lasting longer. The “freeze-free season,” i.e., possible allergy season, has expanded on average by 15 days in the U.S. since 1970, according to recent number crunching from Climate Central. Here in D.C., allergy season has gotten 20 days longer. Oh, and a 2021 paper in the journal Environmental Sciences found that allergy seasons across the U.S. are more intense, with pollen concentrations increasing by 21 percent, “strongly coupled to observed warming.”

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

A “Rocking Chair Rebellion”: Seniors Call on Banks to Dump Big Oil

A series of demonstrations across the country this week staged by environmentalist Bill McKibben’s Third Act group for older activists received a rousing writeup in the Times with plenty of pictures of the demonstrations. Cara Buckley described the scene in D.C.:

Bundled in long johns, puffer coats, layered knit hats and sleeping bags, and fortified by cookies sent by courier from a sympathetic supporter, dozens of graying protesters sat in rocking chairs outside of four banks in downtown Washington for 24 hours, in a nationwide protest billed as the largest climate action ever undertaken by older folks …

Their targets were Chase, the subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America, the biggest investors in fossil fuel projects, according to a 2022 report by the Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups. Collectively, the four banks have poured more than $1 trillion between 2016 and 2021 into oil and gas.

Read Cara Buckley’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.

How to Stay Sane in a World of Crazy Climate Politics

An increasing number of voices are urging people to refocus on the hyperlocal when national events feel too overwhelming.

A chickadee lands on a person's mittened, outstretched hand, which contains sunflower seeds.
Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
A chickadee takes a piece of birdseed.

It’s a tough week to be an environmentalist, or really any person concerned about the future.

The Biden administration’s announcement Monday that it will approve the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope represents more than just another retreat from the president’s campaign promise to end drilling on federal lands. It represents more than just the potential degradation of vulnerable Arctic ecosystems. And it’s not just that Willow is projected to add emissions equivalent to 64 coal-fired power plants, at a time when even the International Energy Agency has concluded that new oil and gas development needs to stop immediately to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming.

In addition to all of these things, the Willow approval underlines that the climate phase of the Biden administration is over. The Inflation Reduction Act, a bittersweet compromise, is behind us, and there’s not much hope of passing more ambitious emissions reductions anytime soon. Biden’s once-ambitious biodiversity agenda is languishing in the congressional discard pile. The tack to the center, ahead of 2024, has begun. And what Democrats managed to shove through the last Congress, good though it was, wasn’t enough—not to prevent catastrophic warming, not to prevent ecosystem collapse, not to shore up and reform the country’s vulnerable and unsustainable food system.

So if you’re worried about this, what should you do now?

In the past decade, much of the most effective environmental and climate advocacy has come from rejecting the 1990s and early-aughts emphasis on personal lifestyle change and instead encouraging people to pour their anxieties into collective action. If the prototypical twentieth-century environmentalist was a bird-watcher, the prototypical twenty-first-century environmentalist would be an organizer. Showcasing these principles, the Sunrise Movement in two short years went from being airily dismissed by Nancy Pelosi as “the green dream or whatever” to being widely credited, among other leftist and youth-focused groups, with changing the Democratic Party’s approach to climate change, pulling Joe Biden left, and influencing the early architecture of the Inflation Reduction Act.

But at a moment when this kind of political action seems pretty comprehensively stymied, how do you do what you can without feeling futile? One answer, which has been floated by a number of different environmental thinkers, is to focus on hyperlocal instead of national issues. It’s the approach many urged as a political strategy back when the legislation that eventually became the IRA looked like it wouldn’t pass at all. And in a slight twist from the organizing push of the last few years, nourishing your local sensibilities as an individual is now the approach a growing number of voices seem to be suggesting for spiritual refreshment, as a personal way of dealing with a political reality that feels overwhelming.

This was one of the themes of Jenny Odell’s surprise bestseller in 2019, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy—that shutting down Twitter, closing the news websites, and reconnecting to the natural world around you is itself a radical act and could furnish the emotional reserves for better political action: “sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully” at present. Odell’s second book, Saving Time, was published last week, and it similarly rejects strict productivity culture in favor of a more organic way of life intimately connected to place (Odell is big on bird-watching and bioregionalism).

Odell’s not alone in pointing to the power of reengaging with what’s directly in front of you, nor the need for an almost spiritual antidote to activist burnout. That’s also one of the themes of British author and former religious sister Karen Armstrong’s Sacred Nature, which came out last fall and argued that contemplating nature in “silence and a degree of solitude” might be necessary, as part of a broader “spiritual revolution,” to fuel policy change. “If we want to halt the environmental crisis, we need first, like Coleridge, to seek a silent receptiveness to the natural world, bringing it into our lives little by little every day.”

Mainstream outlets seem to be catching the vibe. The Atlantic’s climate newsletter recently touted the benefits of creating a frog pond in your backyard, noting that “saving species in the 21st century isn’t just about protecting big, undeveloped parks,” adding that “it can be dizzying to think about all the species that need help right now, but engaging in everyday conservation can also just be fun.” This came barely a week after The New York Times’ climate newsletter linked the obsessive tracking of New York City’s escaped Eurasian eagle-owl to compassion and “radical care” in the Anthropocene, and closed by asking readers, “Tell us: what’s wild around you?”

I’ll admit to a tiny bit of skepticism about this “bird-watching, but make it socialist” approach. While it suits my own proclivities just fine, this kind of solitary engagement with nature is easier recommended by people who already find it compelling than carried out by people with little background in, or space for, avian observation and garden projects. Many people may not know how to start engaging with nature, find it time-consuming, or may not feel inclined to persist in it as a solitary pursuit. And while reconnecting with nature may lead to collective action, there’s no built-in mechanism for it if we’re all walking the urban forests alone.

This is where citizen science comes in. You can focus on the nature around you—even get guidance on doing so—and then submit it to a collective project. Contemplate a nearby stream, then contribute data to a group tracking salt runoff from winter roads. If you do like bird-watching, your time reconnecting with feathery neighbors could feed into a broader effort to figure out the impact of climate change on avian communities. For those who find birds too high-energy for their particular breed of burnout, bivalves are always an option: Volunteer oyster gardening is a thing these days. Where I live in D.C., some of the best information on community water quality gets collected by community members. And these networks are still a way of meeting others—so while they’re a break from politics, they can also furnish not just the data but the connections for subsequent reengagement.

TNR’s climate desk has more to come on the topic of recharging—the emotional sustainability of the climate fight, if you will, in addition to ecological sustainability. But in the meantime, give one of the options here a try. If bad news is getting you down, focus on your immediate surroundings for a while. There isn’t a wrong answer here. Just don’t let despair swallow you whole and spit you out as someone who has given up caring about our fate.

Good News

The distance the average electric vehicle sold in the U.S. can go between charges is now quickly approaching 300 miles, Bloomberg reports. That’s four times the average range in 2011—one of many changes, along with increasing charging station availability, subsidies, and more, that are making E.V.s practical for a wider range of consumers. (Caveat: As TNR’s Kate Aronoff has pointed out, there are problems with “simply recreating current American car culture with electric batteries,” though. Shifting to more of a public transit–oriented system might be more sustainable.)

Bad News

There are possibly PFAS (a.k.a “forever chemicals”) in your toilet paper, and also coffee is going to get more scarce and expensive due to climate change. The Biden administration announced its intent to start restricting PFAS on Tuesday by requiring utility companies to remove them from drinking water.

Stat of the Week

That’s the amount by which a Washington Post investigation found insurance companies were “adjusting” (i.e., reducing) claims from Hurricane Ian survivors, rewriting and even deleting elements of licensed insurance adjusters’ reports to result in lower payouts.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Landowners Fear Injection of Fracking Waste Threatens Aquifers in West Texas

Fracking sites in West Texas, Dylan Baddour reports, “can produce five times as much wastewater as oil.” And the wastewater is typically reinjected into the ground. While researchers know injection wells can cause earthquakes, they don’t have definitive proof yet that they are contaminating groundwater (although there’s plenty of reason to suspect it’s possible, especially given the earthquakes). The practice is starting to unnerve even reliably conservative farmers in the area:

Shifflett, 74, has nothing against oil. He votes Republican, hangs a cross above his door and leans an old rifle on his living room wall. Oil companies are doing their jobs, he said. For this situation, he blames the government—specifically, Texas’ oil field regulator, the Railroad Commission, which issues permits for fracking wastewater injection wells.

“If they ruin the water out here, there won’t be anyone left. This will be a desert with no inhabitants,” he said from his dining room table. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Read Dylan Baddour’s story at Inside Climate News.

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

One Small Step to Help Avoid Total Agricultural Collapse

Fixing our dysfunctional food system as the planet warms will be very hard. But one easy thing is staring us right in the face.

A dried, broken ear of corn lies in the middle of a harvested field.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Corn on the ground during a harvest in Leland, Mississippi

What do we do about the coming phosphorus crisis? In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert details the troubling paradox of the chemical element that, as she reminds readers, Isaac Asimov called “life’s bottleneck.” On the one hand, we’re slowly running out of the phosphorus needed for the fertilizer on which our agricultural system depends. That’s plenty scary on its own! On the other, phosphorus-rich runoff is poisoning our waterways. That’s because the fertilizer turbocharges certain types of toxic algae that can cause serious health problems in humans. Then, when the algae die, “their decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water, creating aquatic dead zones where almost nothing can survive.” (If you’re curious about what this looks like and what it means for coastal communities, check out the photo essay on algal blooms that TNR published in 2019.)

Kolbert explores several different contributors to the phosphorus crisis and an array of ways to ameliorate it. “If every bit of manure on the planet were recycled—cows, pigs, and chickens produce some four billion tons annually—it could cut the demand for mined phosphorus by half,” she notes. “Of course, even in this best-case scenario, the problem would be only half solved.” She reviews other ideas, from human “peecycling” to filtering phosphorus out of wastewater; eliminating corn-based biofuels, which are both highly subsidized and suck up “something like ten percent of all fertilizer” in the United States; and reducing food waste, which would in turn reduce the need for fertilizer.

But there’s another possible solution that came to mind while reading Kolbert’s piece.

The Guardian’s Damian Carrington on Monday reported the results of a new study from researchers at Columbia University and the Environmental Defense Fund, showing that “emissions from the food system alone will drive the world past 1.5 Celsius of global heating, unless high-methane foods are tackled.” High-methane foods means meat—specifically, meat from ruminants.

On the face of it, this news only adds to the sense of existential crisis hovering over our food system. But the study contained a ray of hope: “The temperature rise,” Carrington wrote, “could be cut by 55% by cutting meat consumption in rich countries to medically recommended levels, reducing emissions from livestock and their manure, and using renewable energy in the food system.” Breaking that down, Carrington notes that “if people adopted the healthy diet recommended by Harvard medical school, which allows a single serving of red meat a week, the rise could be cut by 0.2C,” a staggering result for a behavioral change that is logistically much easier than, say, switching en masse to long-underfunded public transit systems, or updating the energy grid to allow for more renewable energy generation, or creating a domestic electric vehicle and lithium battery industry, as the Inflation Reduction Act seeks to do. And this shift wouldn’t mean abandoning the pursuit of equity: “Such a diet would mean a big cut in meat eating in rich nations but could mean an increase in some poorer countries,” Carrington notes.

Reducing animal agriculture, in addition to helping meet climate targets, could also help reduce our phosphorus use and runoff. Corn is typically estimated to account for over 40 percent of U.S. commercial fertilizer use. Only 30 percent of corn gets processed into ethanol (the biofuel Kolbert is talking about), whereas about half becomes animal feed. Alfalfa, another phosphorus-consuming crop, which accounts for over 4 percent of total cropland in the U.S. (it’s also disproportionately contributing to the Southwestern water crisis), likewise goes into cattle bellies. If we eat less meat, we’ll need less corn and alfalfa to feed the animals and thus less phosphorus to fertilize those crops. Recycling those animals’ manure and using it in lieu of mined phosphate fertilizer may be worthwhile as well, but surely a more efficient solution—both from a runoff and an emissions standpoint—would be to reduce the raw demand.

But I don’t know how we get there. Animal agriculture has historically propelled much of America’s dysfunctional subsidy system, skewing agriculture toward practices that damage both human and planetary health, as detailed in Michael Pollan’s critically acclaimed 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s one of the more obvious targets for reform, since meat consumption, as previously mentioned, is comparatively easy to reduce relative to other climate-friendly changes. But as TNR regular Jan Dutkiewicz has repeatedly pointed out, getting people to eat less meat—or even less of one particular type of meat, like beef—is really, really hard. Every time anyone suggests it, people (and Fox News) completely lose their brisket.

TNR’s climate desk has published a couple of ideas on this front over the past few years, from changing the way media covers food to expanding and building on the success of community-led Meatless Mondays. Some people see promise in new meat substitutes, like Impossible Burgers or lab-grown meat. Others may find it helpful to reconnect to traditional foodways—which, contrary to our perception of meat as central to culinary traditions, didn’t involve as much habitual meat consumption because people simply didn’t have access. In presenting “the climate case for rationing” last week, Kate Aronoff pointed out another possible approach. Many argue that rationing in World War II led to one of the healthiest national diets the United Kingdom has ever seen.

Whichever approach you favor—and note that none of these are asking people to forgo hamburgers permanently and forever—something has to give. At the rate we’re going, the food system will break. We can sit on our hands until that happens or take steps now to head off a civilizational catastrophe.

Good News

On Saturday, after a decade of talks, U.N. negotiators finally reached agreement on a treaty to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans.

Bad News

Ocean spray can contaminate coastal communities with E. coli, norovirus, and salmonella, thanks to the sewage routinely dumped into waterways, a new study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography finds.

Stat of the Week

That’s the percentage of the world’s population that remained free from harmful levels of air pollution in 2019, according to new modeling published in The Lancet. In other words: Almost the entire global population is being subjected to air pollution above the World Health Organization’s suggested limits.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Climate solutions do exist. These 6 experts detail what they look like

NPR has a nice little listicle this week offering readers a guide for evaluating so-called climate “solutions” and distinguishing real ones from corporate greenwashing. It’s a good balance between optimism and rigor, which can be a tricky one to strike on this topic. Recommendations include, “Think about who’s selling you the solution” and asking yourself (or the person hawking the solution), “Is it available and scalable now?” Most importantly, it encourages readers not to ignore the big solution staring us all in the face:

It may sound basic, but one big way to address climate change is to reduce the main human activity that caused it in the first place: burning fossil fuels.

Scientists say that means ultimately transitioning away from oil, coal and gas and becoming more energy efficient. We already have a lot of the technology we need to make this transition, like solar, wind, and batteries, [Harvard historian of science Naomi] Oreskes says.

“What we need to do right now is to mobilize the technologies that already exist, that work and are cost competitive, and that essentially means renewable energy and storage,” she says.

Read Julia Simon’s piece at NPR.

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

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.