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

The Humiliation of King Charles

Despite decades of public environmentalism, the British king found himself announcing a bill to expedite oil and gas production this week.

King Charles and Queen Camilla stand in ceremonial attire, surrounded by attendants holding their robes.
WPA Pool/Getty
Britain's King Charles III and Queen Camilla at the State Opening of Parliament on November 7

What is the point of being king if you can’t edit your own speech? You have to imagine the thought crossed Charles III’s mind on Tuesday as he delivered the ceremonial address opening the new session of Parliament.

Charles has for decades presented himself as an environmentalist; while his precise views are a bit complicated, he certainly talks a lot about climate action. But the speech announcing the new legislative agenda, though delivered by the king (or queen), is written by the prime minister’s office. And Rishi Sunak’s precise views on climate action aren’t complicated; they’re nonsensical. He thinks pumping out as much oil and gas as possible from the U.K.’s reserves is actually “good for the climate because the alternative is shipping energy here from halfway around the world with three or four times the carbon emissions.”

This is how Charles found himself in the ridiculous position on Tuesday of presenting a bill to “support the future licensing of new oil and gas fields, helping the country to transition to net-zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households”—an explanation he surely knows is malarkey. This isn’t the first time Sunak has touted more fossil fuel extraction as part of a “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” plan to reach net-zero. (The “pragmatic” and “realistic” part of that plan, presumably, is where the magician appears in a few years and makes all the emissions just go away.) In fact, according to Bloomberg, Sunak actually scaled back the legislative agenda ahead of the king’s speech because when his office asked officials in the U.K.’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to figure out ways to cut back on the environmental regulations and assessments for these drilling projects, they responded that the proposals would violate international law.

Of course, Sunak isn’t alone in insisting—contrary to all available evidence—that further fossil fuel exploration is compatible with climate goals. The Biden administration’s “all of the above” approach to energy generation also assumes, in the words of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, “that oil and gas will remain part of our energy mix for years to come.”

Still, there’s something about watching an environmentalist in a velvet cape solemnly announce new oil and gas fields as a way to meet climate goals that really underlines rich nations’ suicidal dysfunction on this issue. While Peter Morgan’s hit show The Crown has helped popularize the image of the British monarchy as incapable of political statement—hog-tied by a potent blend of constitutional requirement, generational trauma, and fear of being abolished—the fact remains that Charles is physically capable of saying whatever he likes. In the past, he has called global warming “our most existential challenge of all.” If that’s the case, then perhaps now’s the time to speak up and suggest that the prime minister’s policies are, well, malarkey.

Good News, Bad News

Flood-prone Hoboken, New Jersey, is finding novel ways to help the city withstand storms—like burying tanks that can hold storm runoff beneath playgrounds.

Climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues think climate change is happening a lot faster than expected.

Stat of the Week

$110 million

That’s the amount of money manufacturers of the toxic and extremely long-lasting chemicals known as PFAS spent during the last two election cycles alone to delay or block regulation, according to a new study recently reported by The Guardian.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Millions of U.S. homes are so overheated they open their windows in the winter. Why?

If you’ve ever woken at 2 a.m. to the loud clanking and unbearable heat of a steam radiator, opened the window to let in 20-degree air just to cool the place down, and wondered about the futility of existence, this piece is for you. Wilfred Chan looks at the fascinating history of these devices, why they’ve persisted, and what it’s finally going to take to phase them out:

Steam still heats as many as 80% of New York City’s residential multifamily buildings, according to the non-profit Urban Green Council, as well as millions of homes across the north-east and midwestern United States—what the nonprofit calls the “Steam belt.” That means, in a climate emergency as energy prices spiral, tens of millions of Americans are probably opening their windows all winter to let cold air in because their homes are too well heated.…Once considered a luxury, and infamous for constantly exploding boilers, steam heating enjoyed a massive surge in popularity around the 1918 flu pandemic. In response to a “fresh air movement” to fight the virus’s spread, crowded tenement buildings installed steam systems that generated enough heat that residents could leave their windows open, even in the dead of winter. “This is why the radiators are as big as they are,” [heating expert Dan] Holohan explains. “And they’re pumping out all this heat to this day.”

Read Wilfred Chan’s piece in The Guardian.

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

Endless War on a Dying Planet

The dual tragedies of war and ecological collapse in Israel and Palestine

picture alliance/Getty
A Palestinian girl walks on rubble following Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City in October 2023.
I spent the past week glued to my phone, as I’m sure many of you did, scrolling through endless news and horrible videos of the violence in the Middle East.

Sometimes, when global disasters or conflicts happen, people will whip up an infographic pointing out the (occasionally tenuous) connections to climate change; I generally roll my eyes when someone tries to shoehorn climate into an issue that’s not particularly relevant. But in the case of Israel and Palestine, the land that’s being fought over is changing in unmistakable ways—ways that are helping perpetuate a cycle of oppression and violence. Understanding how climate and this conflict are tied together is, for me and for many others, adding another layer of tragedy onto an already heartbreaking situation.

Israel and Palestine are located in one of the most climate-vulnerable areas in the world. Temperatures in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East are rising almost twice as fast as the global average, an international group of scientists concluded last year; they are expected to rise 0.81 degrees each decade through the end of the century. Simultaneously, precipitation in Middle Eastern and North African countries has declined by over 8 percent each decade since the 1980s.

Both Israelis and Palestinians would be struggling to adapt to these challenges even if there were peace. But this bloody conflict has only served to exacerbate the environmental tipping points. While both Israel and Palestine are affected by sea level rise and the loss of coastal territory, the impact is especially severe on the Gaza Strip because it is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and Palestinians are not allowed to expand beyond the militarized borders. Meanwhile, in portions of the West Bank, Palestinian farmers say that settler occupation and violence have blocked them from their regular water supply, forcing them to pay high prices for water as natural sources decline. In Gaza, where much of the electricity is supplied by Israel, power outages dragged on this summer as demand for air conditioning skyrocketed, creating dangerous conditions for people who need ventilators to breathe.

Ecosystems aren’t beholden to borders; the environmental harms wrought on one population by the powerful government next door can sometimes boomerang. Israel’s control of water resources in the West Bank has helped create a huge sanitation problem that poses an immediate and dire threat to Palestinians but also a threat to Israelis, as untreated sewage flows from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea. And while some communities living in the West Bank make a living burning electronic waste imported from Israel, the cancerous smoke is causing health problems on both sides of the border.

In recent years, international environmental groups have begun to emphasize the conditions in Palestine as not just a human rights issue but an environmental one.

“There is a clear separation between how things are being run in Israel and how they are being handled in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Muna Shaheen, a member of One Climate, an Israeli-Palestinian group founded to draw attention to the ecological impacts of the crisis, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2021. “Israel’s attitude toward the West Bank is like a garbage bin. It’s completely ignoring that we all share the same sky, air and land. It’s simply stupid.”

In an age of escalating conflict, following the hottest summer on record, there seems to be no untangling these parallel tragedies of war and climate. The Israeli government, as it launched retaliatory attacks last weekend, also announced a full blockade of Gaza, including blocking water supplies to residents. On Wednesday, the Gaza Strip’s sole power station ran out of fuel after Israel refused to let more supplies in; hospitals across the region now face imminent blackouts as they attempt to care for victims. The U.S. military—which is estimated to emit more carbon dioxide than many countries—is mobilizing to provide even more support to Israel. Iran, a supporter of Hamas, is the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer that has not signed the Paris Agreement; inside its borders, its citizens are facing catastrophic levels of air pollution and are being forced to migrate as droughts, storms, and floods destroy the land. We keep ruining our planet as we kill each other, and one murderous cycle feeds into another.

“Everyone here is busy with fighting over the land,” Shaheen told Haaretz. “But in another minute, we won’t have land to fight over. It’s insane, in my opinion. The house is burning and people are fighting over who will enter it first. Wake up, God damn it!”

Good News, Bad News

Over the weekend, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that will require large companies doing business in California to disclose emissions from all points in their supply chains.

Floods and landslides in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaoundé killed at least 30 people on Sunday.

Stat of the Week

224 hours

That’s the amount of time each year that Dammam, Saudi Arabia, could experience conditions that are too humid for the human body to handle by the end of this century, even if the world meets the goals of the Paris Agreement, a new study finds.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Al Jazeera profiles the divers still looking for the bodies of the thousands of people thought to have perished in last month’s devastating dam break in Libya:

The eerily quiet divers pile onto boats to jump into the sea whenever the weather and waves permit, trying to salvage the bodies still in the waters.

The storm burst two dams above Derna, causing floods that washed through the city, wiping out the landscape, sweeping away buildings and obliterating whole neighbourhoods. The death toll is estimated at thousands, with thousands more reported missing.

“It’s a city down there. More so in the earlier days, as it was populated with bodies. But there’s still a city down there,” said one of the divers.

Read Ahmed Zidane’s full piece at Al Jazeera.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

Latest From Apocalypse Soon

A Glimpse of Our Grief-Addled Future

A college reunion becomes a climate bereavement group.

MARK FELIX/AFP/Getty Images
A firefighter in Bourg, Louisiana, during Hurricane Ida in 2021

I took a trip last week to meet up with some old college friends. We live all around the country, so we’d chosen New Orleans as our meeting place. One of my friends went to medical school there, and he and his partner could drive there from their home in Houston—with a 6-month-old baby I was aching to meet.

Spending time with old friends at this stage of life always feels like an exercise in accepting differences, from new babies to new marriages to new houses to new cities. But what I thought might be a relaxing weekend with people I love best turned into a shared revelation about the one thing we have in common: how climate change is inextricably altering the landscapes around us, regardless of where we live.

On Friday morning, while we were walking through New Orleans to get breakfast, I began getting frantic texts from my girlfriend back in New York, who had tried to walk the dog and was immediately caught in an intense downpour. I scrolled social media, trying to learn what I could about the storm, and saw footage of people wading through streets in my neighborhood and water streaming through cracks in the walls at my subway stop. All told, more than seven inches of rain fell in Brooklyn, my borough, over a single day, and six people had to be rescued from their basement homes.

As I frantically kept up with the storm from hundreds of miles away, I learned that my friends, despite living in the path of hurricanes themselves, didn’t know that Hurricane Ida, which tore through New Orleans in 2021, also swept through New York a week later. That storm killed almost a dozen people, who were trapped in their basement apartments and drowned. It flooded in New York during Ida too? they asked, incredulous. That many people died?

That night, after the rains at home had stopped, we met up with some friends who still live in New Orleans. We were sitting at a bar in the Mid-City district, a little over a mile away from Bayou St. John, a waterway that snakes through the center of the city. A couple blocks away, a handmade commemorative marker showed the chest-high levels the water had reached in that neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina.

This couple, who have two babies around the same age as my friends’ daughter, told us about their latest environmental worry living in New Orleans. Because the Mississippi River’s water levels have been so low this summer, thanks to widespread drought, and sea level rise on the Louisiana coast so pronounced, salt water is slowly creeping up the river toward the city. The salt water is going to ruin drinking water and corrode people’s appliances and pipes. They’ve only got another couple of weeks until it hits.

What are people living here supposed to do about it? I asked. They weren’t sure. The government is working on stopgap solutions—the president declared a state of emergency last week, and the Army Corps of Engineers is installing a levee and expensive desalination machines. But those temporary fixes aren’t going to address the whole problem. Maybe they’d find a way to get out of town until a big rain upriver can flush the salt water back out to sea.

Another friend chimed in with similar news about Colorado: In a region at the southeastern edge of the state, the aquifers have been so overpumped that arsenic is leaking into the drinking water. This friend had moved to Colorado just before the pandemic, and she was one of my first texts when the wildfire smoke hit New York City in June and made our air unbreathable. You don’t realize how oppressive and scary wildfire season is, she told me, until you get to a place where it happens all the time.

What do we do about this? my friends asked me, the climate reporter. The answer isn’t particularly satisfactory. If you don’t control a massive amount of wealth invested in fossil fuels, or a huge oil company that you can suddenly shut down, your personal carbon footprint doesn’t mean much; the best course of action is to get involved in local politics, to formulate plans to keep each other safe, and to draw down carbon emissions as much as possible. But the simple, harsh truth is that even the most aggressive policies in your city won’t substantially change the way the earth seems to be revolting under our feet (and over our heads).

There at the bar, looking at the babies in front of me, I felt the ecological despair that was ever-present during the hottest summer on record. But I also felt a weird solidarity too—a small, neurotic comfort that I wasn’t alone in watching my environs change in terrifying ways. We’re experiencing this horror together, and trying to figure out a way through it.

When we said goodbye, I asked the folks in New Orleans to keep me posted on whatever they decide to do about the salt water. And I made plans to visit my friends in Houston in the winter, when we could go outside with the baby. We’d realized during the trip that because temperatures in the city were dangerously hot this summer, our weekend walking around New Orleans—in gorgeous fall weather, with light breezes and surprisingly low humidity—was the longest stretch of time their daughter had spent outside. This little baby, whom I’d immediately fallen in love with, has had to live most of her life thus far indoors.

Good News, Bad News

The World Bank said last week that it would increase its lending to developing countries to fight climate change by $100 billion over the next 10 years.

More than 100 Amazonian river dolphins were found dead in the past week, after water temperatures in the Brazilian Amazon topped 102 degrees in some places.

Stat of the Week

6.7–13.9 pieces per liter

That’s the concentration of microplastic found in cloud water gathered from mist at the peaks of Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama, according to a recently published study—the first piece of research on the presence of microplastics in clouds.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The Texas Tribune skillfully covers how flooding and rains—coupled with inadequate government response for residents harmed by storms—has all but decimated a small town in Texas.

Decades ago, there were as many as 100 occupied homes in Sam Houston Lake Estates, a densely-wooded neighborhood about 60 miles northeast of Houston. Today there are fewer than a dozen, according to interviews with locals.

Water hasn’t flowed to the homes in this neighborhood in more than three years—the water company says it can’t get vehicles in to maintain its well—and first responders won’t attempt to navigate the neighborhood’s narrow bridge and eroded dirt roads.

When someone is sick or injured, residents have to drive, or carry, their neighbors out of the woods to reach medical help.

This river bottom flooded often in the past, former residents said, but not like it has in the last decade. Climate change has likely intensified flooding and accelerated erosion, experts said.

Read Erin Douglas’s full piece at the Texas Tribune.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

Will Mainers Take Their Power Into Their Own Hands?

Maine voters could set a model for other areas of the country to follow with a rare hostile takeover of the electric powers that be.

Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
Workers removing a tree from power lines in South Berwick, Maine, in March 2018

While we may grumble about our electric bill, most of us take the idea of paying the costs of electricity to a specific power company each month as a given. But what if you could fire the utilities that are responsible for keeping your lights on if they do a bad job—or if they aren’t prioritizing climate change?

In November, Mainers will vote on a ballot initiative that could substantially change who controls their power—literally. If a majority of Mainers vote “yes” on Question 3, they would be able to replace Central Maine Power, or CMP, and Versant, two companies that supply more than 96 percent of Maine’s electric customers, with a new publicly owned power company. It would be a rare hostile takeover of the electric powers that be, which could set a model for other areas of the country to follow.

The campaign to replace CMP and Versant is being run by a grassroots group called Our Power. For years, Mainers have complained about outage and customer service issues from both of their big utilities. The new company, which would be named Pine Tree Power, would “bring back local control, save money, and reduce outages,” all while speeding the transition to cleaner energy.

Versant and CMP are what’s known as investor-owned utilities: for-profit companies that are given monopolies by the state to provide power to certain areas. More than 70 percent of the country gets its power from investor-owned utilities. But this model, said Joshua Macey, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School who focuses on energy policy, is a relatively recent invention from the late 1800s that took off as the use of electricity was becoming more widespread and the companies profiting off it wanted to maintain control.

According to the rules of their state-given franchises, investor-owned utilities can’t earn money on the energy they provide to consumers. They’re only allowed to make a profit on building new infrastructure—which creates an incentive for utilities to go buck wild in building lots of new pipelines or a truckload of new peaker plants. By comparison, a switch to lower-emissions forms of power or incorporating efficiency upgrades to existing infrastructure only benefits the consumers served by the utilities, not the shareholders; the financial impetus to do those things, therefore, is nonexistent.

“It doesn’t really make sense for utilities to operate as for-profit companies,” Macey said.

Utilities are powerful industries in the United States—and, understandably, the owners of Maine’s utilities are stressed out about the potential changes Question 3 poses. The ballot has kicked off an enormous flood of cash in the state. In June, Floodlight and the Portland Press Herald reported that organizations funded by Avangrid and CMP’s parent companies had already spent $16.5 million on fighting Question 3—about 17 times what the ballot’s proponents have spent.

Macey said that even if the ballot initiative succeeds, the utilities will almost certainly sue, kicking off a lengthy legal process that will drag on for at least a few years. And even if courts and regulators allow the initiative to move forward, there are still aspects that are up in the air.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s a little scary to be in Maine, because they have to work out the details,” Macey said.

While Our Power’s website paints a rosy picture of what will happen if Maine ditches its for-profit power, non–investor owned utilities aren’t a total panacea to everyone’s problems. Utilities have an enormous role to play in balancing the energy transition with consumer bills—a massively complex job that doesn’t necessarily get easier when those utilities aren’t controlled by for-profit companies. The nation’s biggest public power company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has stubbornly held onto coal-fired power for years and has largely dismissed renewable energy options for replacing some of that dirty energy.

Still, what’s going on in Maine presents an exciting new possibility for the rest of the country. The utility industry has spent massive amounts of money to ensure that it keeps control of its monopolies and the resulting profits from the American electric system—including fighting against climate action that it sees as costly to its business model. Even if Question 3 fails, it’s a powerful reminder that municipal takeover was once a common concept for how governments would rein in utilities that weren’t adequately serving their customers.

“Investor-owned utilities are given an enormously valuable gift by the government,” Macey said. “Dealing with the specific cost of transitioning away from an investor-owned model may be enormously hard. But I think, despite that, it is really important to note that utilities don’t have a license to keep having ballooning costs, failing on their environmental mandates, and failing to meet their reliability obligations.”

Good News, Bad News

The path to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) is getting narrower—but there’s still a chance we could get there with aggressive action by 2030, a new report from the International Energy Agency finds.

Domestic oil production in the U.S. will reach a record new high over the next few months.

Stat of the Week

34,000

That’s the number of homes, businesses, and other structures projected to be destroyed each year by wildfires supercharged by climate change by the mid-2050s, a new report finds—double the current number.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Hydropower is a major source of fossil fuel–free energy in the Western U.S. But the dams that make hydropower possible have also destroyed valuable rivers and ecosystems, sparking a complex debate in the region about the future of these dams, the Los Angeles Times reports:

Almost everybody wants to protect salmon. Here’s the challenge.

Even if every Western dam stays in place, we’ll need to build a mind-boggling number of solar fields, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and long-distance electric lines to break our fossil fuel addiction—and fast. That’s going to be tough, even after the landmark climate bill signed by President Biden last year. Already, opposition to renewable power infrastructure is bubbling up from rural communities, conservationists and tribes as ever-larger stretches of land are eyed by energy developers.

Start tearing down dams, and the energy transformation gets even harder. In a typical year, hydropower plants generate around 6 percent or 7 percent of U.S. electricity. The lower that number gets, the more sprawling solar and wind farms we’ll need to build.

Read Sammy Roth’s full piece at the Los Angeles Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

This article has been updated to correct the forms the new utility may take. The previous version of this piece stated that the new utility could be an agency or a cooperative, but neither of those forms are possibilities according to the language of the ballot initiative.

For The Wall Street Journal, the Climate Call is Coming From Inside the House

When will the Journal’s editorial board wake up to reality?

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a bombshell investigation into ExxonMobil’s internal strategy to downplay the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change. The investigation offers shocking details of how Exxon executives worked behind closed doors to push narratives that would help them drill more oil; funded “science to support [their] business” as the consensus around man-made global warming grew; and adopted ludicrous tactics such as trying to influence the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body, after the group published a report sounding the alarm.

We’ve known for several years that Exxon has spent the past few decades working to suppress climate science and mislead the public. The Journal’s investigation takes what we already knew about the oil company’s deceit one step further, using newly unveiled documents to show how Exxon continued to perpetuate climate denial well into the 2010s—even as it was making public statements acknowledging climate science and in support of the Paris Agreement. In addition, the period covered by the Journal’s reporting includes the time when the company was under the control of Rex Tillerson, later Trump’s secretary of state.

“The documents reviewed by the Journal, which haven’t been previously reported … show that Tillerson, as well as some of Exxon’s board directors and other top executives, sought to cast doubt on the severity of climate change’s impacts,” reporters Christopher Matthews and Collin Eaton wrote. “Exxon scientists supported research that questioned the findings of mainstream climate science, even after the company said it would stop funding think tanks and others that promoted climate-change denial.” Damning stuff!

For a blockbuster investigation like this, a big media outlet will often pull in reinforcements from its various sections to help promote it or add context. But while the Journal did run a companion podcast on the Exxon investigation, its editorial board and op-ed section stayed completely silent on the bombshell. The editorial board did, however, run a piece last Sunday that fearmongered about the Securities and Exchange Commission working with the “climate lobby” to give “trial lawyers ammunition to attack business” with the agency’s proposed climate disclosure law. That’s not terribly surprising: The Journal’s opinion section, after all, decided to spend the hottest summer in recorded history publishing misleading pieces on climate change and wildfires and railing against efforts to encourage people to bike more. (The editorial board published no pieces on the record-breaking heat the entire country felt this summer—I checked.)

As with the Exxon investigation, the disconnect between The Wall Street Journal’s reporting side and its opinion department isn’t exactly news. The Journal’s opinion section has long been a bastion for some of the most stubbornly immovable—and increasingly absurd—climate denial in news media. It routinely publishes notable players from the climate-denier ranks. Its editorial board has a history of denying basic climate science. It once ran an attack on the science around sea level rise that was so full of scientific errors that a professor of earth science said that if the author was one of his students, he would have failed. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse even gave a speech on the floor of the Senate in 2018 about just how shitty the paper is on this topic.

The Journal’s former owner, Rupert Murdoch, who stepped down from his position this week, is one of the great platformers of conservative talking points—and climate denial—through the various outlets of his media dynasty; the paper is reportedly his first read of the morning, and its editorial board is widely seen as being able to tip the scales of the mainstream Republican Party on various candidates and issues. But the Journal has also faced blowback from its own reporters over content published in its editorial pages, since the newsroom sent a letter to leadership in 2020 complaining about the lack of fact-checking in its op-ed section. As the world gets hotter and hotter, the gulf between the world of the Journal’s venerable opinion staff—where the science around climate change is hogwash, where a delirious “climate lobby” is trying to usurp capitalism, where we should all just shut up and drill more oil—and the stories its decorated newsroom is actually reporting may only grow.

Ironically, the Journal’s investigation was based on a huge trove of documents that Exxon was forced to turn over to New York’s attorney general for its investigation of the company in 2015; that suit, as well as subsequent climate lawsuits, became a favorite punching bag for the editorial board. Over the weekend, California filed a massive lawsuit against several oil companies, and NPR reported that the state is likely to use the documents uncovered by the Journal in court. The so-called “climate lobby” that’s given “trial lawyers ammunition to attack business” that the editorial board is so so up in arms about may wind up simply being the paper’s own reporters, doing good work in its own newsroom.

Good News, Bad News

Tens of thousands of activists turned out on Sunday in New York to march to demand that the Biden administration end U.S. reliance on fossil fuels.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will walk back or delay some of the country’s climate policies, he said in a speech Wednesday, claiming the moves will save consumers money.

Stat of the Week

50x

That’s how much more likely climate change made the devastating floods in Libya earlier this month that killed thousands of people, a new study has found.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The Sierra Club has had a rocky road with its approach to racial equity in the wake of the hiring of its first Black leader, The Washington Post reports:

Today, the 131-year-old group is in turmoil over its approach to diversity, equity and environmental justice, according to interviews with 12 current and former staffers, most of whom spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of facing retaliation or otherwise harming their job prospects. The tumult illustrates the challenges top environmental groups face in trying to diversify their staffs, despite their recent efforts to reckon with the conservation movement’s legacy of racism. After coming under scrutiny for not doing enough to promote employees of color and fight pollution that disproportionately hurts minority communities, even organizations that have shifted course find themselves embroiled in fights over how to address past wrongs and ensure equity.

Read Maxine Joselow’s full piece at The Washington Post.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

Latest From Apocalypse Soon

The Headwinds Facing Offshore Wind Farms

What’s the big holdup?

Drew Angerer/Getty
President Joe Biden with a wind-turbine size comparison chart.

Last week, the Biden administration held the nation’s first ever offshore wind auction in the Gulf of Mexico. It described the sale in a press release as part of its “once-in-a-generation investment in America’s infrastructure and our clean energy future,” with the potential to power around 1.3 million homes with clean energy. A significant sale could have signaled a shift away from fossil fuels for the oil- and gas-intensive Gulf region, but it was far from a runaway success: Only two companies bid for the leases on offer.  

The sale isn’t the only sign of trouble for the U.S. offshore wind industry—and some major players are flagging problems to come. Following a summer of canceled projects from various companies, Danish offshore wind giant Orsted said in an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday that it needed more help from the U.S. government if it was going to move forward with its U.S. projects. “We are still upholding a real option to walk away,” CEO Mads Nipper told the outlet. 

The Biden administration has made kick-starting the U.S. offshore wind industry a core part of its climate agenda, while also hoping to make it a cornerstone of Biden’s plans to invest in manufacturing jobs. It set an ambitious goal of installing enough offshore wind energy to power 10 million homes by the end of the decade. But despite record investments and government incentives, some serious headwinds (pardon the pun) are facing the industry. From the hard financial realities of building capital-intensive infrastructure projects to serious fossil fuel–funded political opposition, there’s a rocky road ahead for offshore wind over the coming years—no matter how much support or incentives the Biden administration throws at it.

When climate people talk about the renewable energy transition, they tend to wax poetic about the continually plummeting costs of wind and solar. That holds true for wind on land but is not the case for its offshore component. Siting and construction for offshore wind turbines is, unsurprisingly, much more expensive than for onshore wind; some estimates place the price tag for a kilowatt-hour of energy produced by offshore wind almost five times as high as that same kilowatt-hour produced onshore. There’s a lot of labor and time involved in installing skyscraper-size turbines miles off the coast. While onshore wind has had a steady foothold in the United States for decades, there are only two offshore wind farms currently operating in the U.S., off the coast of Virginia and Rhode Island. Many of the proposed projects are having to start from scratch in figuring out manufacturing and labor. 

When you add the high price of materials like steel, things get even trickier. Because they don’t face many of the siting regulations that affect onshore turbines, individual offshore turbines can be designed much larger than their onshore counterparts in order to capture more power. These turbines are only projected to grow bigger over the coming decades. That’s great news for the grid but means higher installation costs up front. 

Many of these problems are not unique to the offshore wind industry; with high worldwide prices for raw materials and labor, plus sky-high interest rates in the U.S., it’s not exactly a great time for huge infrastructure projects in general. As Bloomberg’s Liam Denning wrote last monthoffshore wind has a lot more in common with the nuclear industry than it does with its onshore counterpart in terms of big, lengthy projects with a lot of upfront costs—and is similarly going to have to rely on the government to get a lot of its farms across the finish line.  

For capital- and time-intensive industries like offshore wind and nuclear, the political support of a presidential administration can make or break projects. In the U.S., the Trump administration’s antagonistic attitude toward renewable energy created several roadblocks and additional lag times for offshore wind, including, ironically, a last-minute environmental review for already-delayed projects in the Atlantic Ocean. All the Biden administration’s encouragement and tax incentives can’t make up for lost time. (Some developers are flagging that certain requirements in the Inflation Reduction Act—including, notably, that turbines be made in the U.S. and sited in specific communities—are making it more difficult to access those incentives.)

And unlike nuclear, which has seen a dramatic surge in support from the center and right wing in recent years, offshore wind is currently the target of a massive misinformation campaign. Since Biden took office and projects around the country have begun to move forward, right-wing groups—many funded by fossil fuel interests—have mobilized grassroots opposition (or created it wholesale) along the Atlantic coast, professing concern for offshore wind’s impact on wildlife. In places like New Jersey, offshore wind developers are facing lawsuits from these astroturf groups that are tangling up the process.

Even if offshore wind companies manage to weather the industry’s financial troubles and handle these lawsuits, this political opposition isn’t something to be ignored. The GOP is learning to more creatively campaign against climate action and figuring out different ways to boost fossil fuels when it’s not in power. As we saw with the Trump administration, much of the American clean energy project is a long game, requiring years of encouragement and incentives; the most enthusiastic, pro–climate action administration in the world can’t play catch-up if we go back to square one every election cycle.

Good News, Bad News

A Memphis-area plant that uses carcinogens to sterilize medical equipment will shut down following years of activism from community members living around it.

An entire town in Louisiana was forced to evacuate last week as part of Louisiana’s “unprecedented” summer of wildfires—August alone saw 441 fires. 

Stat of the Week

25%

That’s how much climate change has increased the risk of wildfires in California, a new study shows.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Climate change came for Burning Man this year—but last year, its organizers helped stop a geothermal energy project in the desert where the festival is held, Grist reports

The Burning Man Project, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, also worked with residents of the tiny town of Gerlach, the hamlet closest to the geothermal development, to appeal the [Bureau of Land Management]’s decision. The wells, the organization said, would “threaten the viability” of Burning Man’s various projects in Nevada by potentially jeopardizing local hot springs in the area and disrupting the desert ecosystem. The plaintiffs argued that BLM had approved the project without adequate environmental review and hadn’t sufficiently consulted local communities, including the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, in its permitting process. 

“People travel to Gerlach to experience the solitude of the vast open spaces and undeveloped vistas present in the Black Rock Desert,” the lawsuit said, “as well as to attend numerous events and to pursue a variety of recreation experiences in the undeveloped desert.” …

The claim that the region remains relatively undisturbed, given the 70,000-person party that rolls in every year, rang particularly hollow.

“Some of the hype around Gerlach has been disturbing from a scientific point of view,” James Faulds, Nevada’s State Geologist, told Grist. “The Gerlach area has already been disturbed by man.”

Read Zoya Teirstein’s full piece at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

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Vivek Ramaswamy Is Teaching the GOP to Weaponize Climate

The candidate is demonstrating a new way of Republican campaigning: with climate change front and center.

Bloomberg/Getty
Vivek Ramaswamy during Fox News’ Republican primary presidential debate

On the debate stage in Milwaukee last week, the eight Republican candidates in attendance got a surprising question from the moderators: Do you believe in human-caused climate change? Only Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old former pharmaceutical executive who has seen a surprising spike in polling over the summer, seemed to have a sound bite ready.

“The climate change agenda is a hoax,” he said. “The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”

Ramaswamy’s answer didn’t come out of left field. Demonizing climate policy has been central to his campaign from the start. Ramaswamy represents a new, and worrying, evolution of Republican campaigning in an age of increasingly hot summers, boiling oceans, and devastating wildfires: Rather than ignoring climate change or dismissing its science as unsettled, he’s weaponizing it as an issue, turning climate policy into a culture-war villain. Given his recent rise in popularity, it’s past time for those concerned about the future of the planet to start scrutinizing what he’s doing.

The GOP’s response to climate change has been historically shaped by one of its favorite donors: the fossil fuel industry. Before the late 2000s, major party figures like George W. Bush and John McCain professed concern about climate change. The GOP’s commitment to climate denial really took off after 2008, when oil interests began to marshal opposition to a proposed cap-and-trade tax on carbon emissions—the first, and one of the only, major efforts to pass climate legislation in the United States. Accordingly, opposition to climate action from GOP politicians in subsequent years has mimicked the pattern set by decades of fossil fuel denial from these same oil companies: Question the validity and certainty of climate science to delay meaningful action, and distract voters with other tactics and issues.

For the next 15 years, it was this oil-inspired anti-science rhetoric—coupled with accusations that Democrats’ favored climate policies would destroy fossil fuel jobs—that dominated Republicans’ rhetoric about climate change. As a result, climate change was rarely the focus of a Republican candidacy or presidency but a sideshow to be dealt with quietly: something that a Democratic opponent or a TV anchor might bring up that could be hand-waved with a claim that the science was not yet settled. Even Donald Trump, who made various (muddled) statements about climate change being a hoax and pandered heavily to coal miners on the campaign trail, never really made it a major talking point. He left the real work to be done by cronies like EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who used his scant media appearances to consistently (and falsely) cast doubt on climate science.

A few things have changed in recent years that have set the stage for a new kind of GOP candidate like Ramaswamy, who deliberately puts climate at the center of his campaign. Thanks in large part to the Inflation Reduction Act and other Biden administration policies, climate policy is now baked into federal legislation in ways it wasn’t before, giving the GOP much more fodder to push back on. Republicans also have been hard at work fanning the flames of various culture wars in recent years—including anti–environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, investment sentiment, which has rapidly become a top Republican bugaboo. The rise of QAnon-fueled conspiracy theories and candidates have made pinning various issues on a conspiracy of “elites”—as Ramaswamy does with climate—much more acceptable in mainstream political discourse. Last, climate change has simply become much harder to ignore and is shaping up to possibly become a wedge issue with future generations: The only audience question posed at the Republican debate came from a student who noted polling that shows climate change is one of young people’s top concerns.

These conditions are ripe for a candidate like Ramaswamy. Before he decided to run for president, Ramaswamy had created a name for himself as an anti-ESG campaigner, authoring a book railing against the “modern woke-industrial complex.” The evils of diversity, equity, and inclusion, in his rhetoric, are inseparable from climate action. “End the climate cult” has been a consistent talking point from the beginning of his campaign. “The Left’s commandments: Race, Gender, Sexuality, Climate,” Ramaswamy posted on X earlier this month. “We can’t just be against their vision. We must offer our own: God. Nation. Family. Individual.” It’s a nonsense statement—he’s just naming universal concepts, not actual commandments like, say, Thou shalt not destroy our only planet. But if Ramaswamy’s polling numbers are any indication, this kind of nonsense seems to be working.

Good News, Bad News

“Tiny forests”—trees and foliage planted on little lots—are increasing in popularity in the U.S., and can sequester a surprising amount of carbon while being extremely easy to maintain.

Scientists estimate that more than 9,000 emperor penguin chicks died last year in Antarctica thanks to unprecedentedly low levels of sea ice—a worrying number for an endangered species facing consistent habitat loss.

Stat of the Week

91.2°F

That’s the temperature taken in the ocean off the Florida Keys on Monday—an unusually warm reading. Warm oceans helped strengthen Hurricane Idalia, which made landfall as a Category 3 storm on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

A book could literally kill you. That’s what mycologists are warning the public about as booksellers like Amazon offer mushroom-foraging books likely written by artificial intelligence, not humans, 404 Media reports:

Amazon has an AI-generated books problem that’s been documented by journalists for months. Many of these books are obviously gibberish designed to make money. But experts say that AI-generated foraging books, specifically, could actually kill people if they eat the wrong mushroom because a guidebook written by an AI prompt said it was safe.…

“There are hundreds of poisonous fungi in North America and several that are deadly,” Sigrid Jakob, president of the New York Mycological Society, told me in an email. “They can look similar to popular edible species. A poor description in a book can mislead someone to eat a poisonous mushroom.”

Read Samantha Cole’s full piece at 404 Media.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

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How Kids Pulled Off a Climate Sneak Attack in Montana

Montana wasn’t prepared to face climate science on trial.

The Washington Post/Getty
Grace Gibson-Snyder, one of the 16 youth plaintiffs in Held v. Montana

Chris Dorrington has been the director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality since January 2021. In an age when wildfires are chewing up the West and searing heat is toppling records across the country, a top environmental official like Dorrington should be at least somewhat familiar with major groups working on climate—including the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the world’s leading body on climate science and projections. 

But Dorrington had never heard of the IPCC until a climate lawsuit against his state by a group of young people went to trial in June. The IPCC was such an unfamiliar term to Dorrington, in fact, that he kept messing up the acronym during his testimony. In a later cross-examination, the state asked for IPCC reports to be dismissed as “hearsay.”

Last week, the judge in Held v. Montana handed down a victory for the 16 young plaintiffs, who argued that the state’s continued production of fossil fuels violated their constitutional rights. Advocates say the landmark ruling could have broad ramifications for future climate litigation. But it’s also clear that Montana was woefully unprepared to face climate science on trial.

Part of the reason this case was so unique—and one of the reasons that its outcome is so extraordinary—is that it’s the first climate case brought by young people to go to trial, and one of the rare times that a case concerning climate has actually had its day in court. That’s partially by design, says Karen Sokol, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Polluters, and the states that sympathize with them, have developed a heretofore reliable strategy to stop climate litigation: Get cases thrown out before they even go to trial.

 “The defendants, whether they’re governments, like in this case with Montana, or private actors like fossil fuel companies—they really seem to think that they’re going to be able to get these cases dismissed on procedural grounds,” Sokol said. “There’s an overarching message that climate doesn’t belong in the courts.”

The Montana case followed this pattern. The initial suit was filed in early 2020, and the defense team—representing the state, Governor Greg Gianforte, and several state agencies—filed a number of petitions and motions over the next few years to try and gum up the process. By the time the trial began, the defense had twice attempted, and failed, to get the state Supreme Court involved to stop the trial. 

Given how long Montana had to prepare, its argument in June was pretty pathetic. The state only put three people on the stand, including Dorrington, a paltry showing compared to the 21 witnesses provided by the plaintiffs. A fourth state witness—Dr. Judith Curry, a former professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a frequent critic of climate science—pulled out of the trial at the last minute. 

According to Curry, who published a blog post that she calls her “post-trial statement,” the state changed legal teams at least twice in the past year. Their original witnesses, whom Curry was brought on as part of a team to replace, were “pretty subpar.” During the trial, the state’s lawyers, Curry wrote, showed they were “totally unprepared for direct and cross examination of climate science witnesses.” Curry claims she withdrew her own testimony out of concern for how the defense’s lawyers, not the plaintiffs’, would handle her questioning. 

It’s not unreasonable, Sokol told me, to assume that fossil fuel sympathizers are taking notes about what happened here. In addition to the various kids’ cases, which tend to be filed against governing bodies, there are around two dozen lawsuits brought by cities, states, and counties against multiple private oil companies, which are working their way through various courts. The industry has long shared tactics to fight lawsuits; given the close relationship between some states’ attorneys general and oil and gas interests, it wouldn’t be surprising if those strategies are also making their way into state legal briefs. In the future, Sokol said, defense teams may be better prepared for an actual trial, putting on the stand deniers and skeptics like Curry who are well versed in casting doubt on climate science—and who actually know what the IPCC is.

Still, even if oil companies and their allies are taking careful notes from Montana’s flop, it might not make much difference. 

“What the defendants are realizing, and are going to have to come to terms with, is that climate in the courts is no longer exceptional,” she said. “It’s going to become increasingly ordinary because that’s our reality. Courts deal with facts and reality. It’s going to become harder and harder to stop that from happening.”

And while it’s one thing for a climate skeptic to use rhetorical arguments to undermine science in a podcast interview or an appearance on Fox News, it’s quite another to try those strategies in a court of law, where evidentiary standards are much higher and cross-examination much more aggressive.

“That’s why defendants have been willing to go years and spend an incredible amount of money to keep [these cases] from getting to the merits,” Sokol said. “The information landscape has been in their control. The courtroom is designed to find the truth.”

Good News, Bad News

Ecuadorians voted Monday to stop oil drilling in Yasuní National Park, an incredibly diverse region in the Amazon that’s also home to some of the world’s last uncontacted Indigenous groups.

About 850 people are still missing, nearly two weeks after a wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii.  

Stat of the Week

That’s how long it’s been since a tropical storm like Hilary has hit California. Factors including warmer than usual waters in the Gulf of Mexico led to this week’s historic storm. 

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The tragedy in Hawaii this month was one that people living in Lahaina have been afraid could happen for years, Grist reports

[David] jumped in a car with a panicked driver who drove the wrong direction, straight into the flames, where she got stuck in back-to-back traffic along the highway. David clutched the door handle to get out but it was so hot that it burned his fingers. The flames were 60 feet high and five feet away on either side of them. The cars in front of them were on fire. He yelled that they should run but he was the only one in the car who jumped out. Everyone else was frozen. He threw open the door and ran until the flames were far behind.

In the days since, he hasn’t been able to stay still. Every day he cries and keeps moving, sleeping along the road, by the park, at a friend’s and in a shelter. He can’t stop thinking about what he saw and questioning if he could’ve done more.

No one he was with that day survived—not his roommates, none of the other passengers in the car, not even the dog with whom he had been sleeping before waking up to a literal nightmare.

Read Anita Hofschneider’s full piece at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

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Should Climate Protesters Be Less Annoying?

Activists interrupted a pro tennis tournament in Washington, D.C., last week—and reignited a debate about how best to wage the climate fight.

Just Stop Oil protesters throw soup on at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”
Anadolu Agency/Getty
Just Stop Oil protesters throw soup on Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

American tennis pro Taylor Fritz beat Andy Murray at the D.C. Open in Washington last Friday. But he was not in a celebratory mood after the match, which had been interrupted by climate protesters who unfurled banners, shouted slogans, and threw oversize tennis balls decorated with flames onto the court.  

“It’s ruining everyone’s time,” Fritz told The Guardian. “Everyone wants to watch the tennis. I jokingly said, ‘Honestly, this makes me want to go fly on jets more.’ I think they’re supporting a good cause, but the way they’re doing it.… Who’s going to want to listen when they’re just annoying everybody?” Fritz’s feelings seem to have been pretty representative: Fans booed the protesters and then cheered their ejection from the stadium. 

The theatricality of the protest reminded me of last year’s Vincent van Gogh debacle. In October, climate activists made worldwide headlines for throwing soup and other foods on famous paintings in museums, including van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The demonstrations were, literally and figuratively, splashy, and generated a debate about whether these types of protests are productive. That debate—which threatens to overshadow the problem the protesters are trying to draw attention to—was revived again after the D.C. Open disruption. There’s a sense from many pundits that extreme climate activists are losing out on public support for their cause by being, well, really annoying.

The idea that the climate movement is reacting with too much panic is one that’s baked into a lot of mainstream coverage these days. Center-right thinkers like Matt Yglesias have repeatedly critiqued left-wing climate activists for “losing the plot.” A  Reuters columnist called Greta Thunberg’s critique of the 2021 U.N. climate summit “bad vibes” and “overblown.” (At that summit, fossil fuel interests were ultimately able to hijack the global agreement and leave room for the industry to continue to flourish.) Even climate scientist Michael Mann, who has devoted much of his career to effectively communicating the climate crisis, wrote a lengthy piece for Time on why the art protests were a bad idea and why protesters should “[choose] sensible actions and appropriate targets.” 

There’s little that individual people can do to stem the tide of the climate crisis. Government action, especially in the United States, is inexcusably slow. Meanwhile, we’re living through the hottest summer in Earth’s history. It’s not surprising, then, that climate protesters—the ones who are actually doing things—become the subject of our discussions. Instead of real conversations about the massive systemic changes that are needed to save our planet, we turn over endless debates around how people are expressing their fear and rage. Calm down, columnists like Yglesias seem to say. This is not how change is made.  

I’m actually not sure what would be defined as an appropriate or effective protest to an increasingly urgent global emergency, or what, exactly, would be the magic action that will change more hearts and minds. At this point, people have literally set themselves on fire to draw attention to the climate crisis; high schoolers have staged hunger strikes and gone to the hospital. The powers that be have responded to these actions with, largely, a yawn. Meanwhile, activists who turn to actual tangible tactics to destroy fossil fuel infrastructure—like blowing up pipelines—have been targeted and jailed with draconian sentences. Fossil fuel–friendly states have moved lightning fast to adopt legislation to define these people as terrorists and make sure this never happens again. 

What is the right way to protest climate inaction? I’m not sure the goal should be to engender public sympathy, anyway. If activists only demonstrated in ways that mannerist pundits consider appropriate, they’d be meekly waving signs outside the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Living through a time of continual ecological panic, when we can do little as individuals to change what’s happening, is an extremely mentally weird place to be, and we’re all still learning how to handle ourselves. If I was in that stadium last Friday, I’m sure that I would have been miffed too, wishing the protesters would go away so I could enjoy the match after a long day. But in a big-picture sense, I’m glad people were annoyed. At least they’re feeling something.

Good News, Bad News

Following a breakthrough last December, scientists this week repeated a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than was put into it—a major development for fusion technology.

Florida’s Department of Education has officially approved materials from a right-wing video production company for public schools, meaning that climate denial videos could soon be shown in state classrooms.

Stat of the Week

That’s how much of the world’s population experienced hotter than usual temperatures in July, a new analysis finds.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

The EPA approved a boat fuel that is so toxic that every person who is exposed to it over an extended period of time is at risk of developing cancer, ProPublica reports:

Federal law requires the EPA to conduct safety reviews before allowing new chemical products onto the market. If the agency finds that a substance causes unreasonable risk to health or the environment, the EPA is not allowed to approve it without first finding ways to reduce that risk.

But the agency did not do that in this case. Instead, the EPA decided its scientists were overstating the risks and gave Chevron the go-ahead to make the new boat fuel ingredient at its refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Though the substance can poison air and contaminate water, EPA officials mandated no remedies other than requiring workers to wear gloves, records show.

ProPublica | Sharon Lerner

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

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What Boiling Oceans Will Do to Life on Land

“We knew this would happen, but the difference is that we thought it would be a little bit later.”

Joe Raedle/Getty
The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean on July 13, in Miami Beach, Florida.

It’s difficult to describe the insanity of what’s happening off the coast of Florida right now. A sensor in the Keys last week recorded water temperatures of more than 101 degrees—about the same as a hot tub—in what could be one of the highest ocean temperatures ever recorded; at this time of year, they should be in the 70s and 80s. Corals are bleaching and dying at previously unheard-of rates, thanks in part to the water’s steamy conditions.

And it’s not just Florida. Across the world this summer, heat waves are gripping the world’s oceans—and marine experts are sounding the alarm.  

It’s easy to think of the oceans as a separate entity, but conditions in them matter a lot to life on land. These Jacuzzi temperatures are another example of how badly climate change is altering the entire balance of our world as we know it—not just under the sea.

The earth just lived through its hottest month on record—but if we didn’t have the power of the oceans on our side, things could have been even more catastrophic. Since the 1970s, the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat in the atmosphere generated by burning fossil fuels and about one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere.

Regina Rodrigues, a professor of physical oceanography and climate at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil, specializes in marine heat waves. Oceans, she told me, act as a buffer against the most extreme heat for those of us on land. 

“If the ocean wasn’t absorbing this excess heat, we would be in a much worse situation,” Rodrigues said. “It’s great for us, but all of this comes at a price.” That price is a steady increase in sea surface temperatures: The world’s oceans have warmed by around 0.13 degrees Celsius (0.23 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade over the past 100 years

The unbelievable temperatures recorded in waters across the world this summer aren’t all thanks to climate change. The El Niño effect is also helping to heat the tropical North Atlantic, Rodrigues said, and could be impacting the jet stream, which is triggering heat waves around the Florida area. “There’s several different things all happening in the same spot at the same time,” she said. “That’s maybe why we’re getting these real extremes.” 

All this ocean warming has real impacts for life on land. Warmer waters accelerate the melting of the world’s glaciers and sea ice, supercharging the rate of sea level rise. Many of the corals that are struggling to survive act as important natural barriers for coastlines, protecting them from storms and floods. Hotter waters can decrease oxygen and key nutrients in the ocean and change the balance of ecosystems, seriously impacting larger species we rely on for food. 

We could also be in for some monster storms this year. Warmer sea surface temperatures give hurricanes more ammunition to strengthen before they hit land; warmer air also allows more moisture to form, juicing up these storms. These extreme ocean temperatures are coming right as the Atlantic’s hurricane season hits its peak. “Maybe the El Niño will counteract that, but if it doesn’t, we could have a very busy hurricane season,” Rodrigues said.

In the longer term, the overheating ocean could change weather patterns around the globe. Scientists have long been worried about the functioning of a key ocean current known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation in a warming world. The AMOC, which moves warmer water around the Atlantic Ocean, is already slowing down, thanks at least in part to climate change. A study released late last month predicted that, in an absolute worst-case scenario, the AMOC could collapse in as little as two years. While we simply don’t know when—or if—the AMOC will collapse or what exactly may happen when it does, the results could be enormous shifts in worldwide temperatures and precipitation—potentially catastrophic changes. 

I asked Rodrigues how she was feeling about all this. Even for those of us who cover the climate crisis regularly, that 100-degree-plus reading in Florida was truly shocking—was she feeling that way too? 

“It’s not that we didn’t know extremes would happen, but … what’s more surprising is that they’re coming faster than what we previously projected in models,” she told me. “When scientists say this is ‘shocking’—we knew this would happen, but the difference is that we thought it would be a little bit later, not so quick. But these extreme events are coming really hard, and really quick.”

Good News

Coal-heavy Wyoming is making a big bid to move into wind energy this year.

Bad News

At least 20 people are dead and thousands forced to evacuate as devastating floods hit Beijing this week. 

Stat of the Week

$100 billion

That’s how much lost productivity due to heat exposure reportedly cost the U.S. economy in 2020.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

How Florida’s insurance crisis is haunting Ron DeSantis’ campaign

Republican opponents are beginning to use Florida’s insurance crisis—some companies are ending coverage in the state thanks to climate change—against Governor Ron DeSantis on the campaign trail, ABC News reports

With hurricane season looming this summer, DeSantis is now being pressed to answer for the issue: from Trump, the race’s frontrunner, who has begun to regularly repeat the insult during his rallies on the national campaign trail, and from other politicians in Florida.

“Governor, come home and take care of your state,” said Democratic State Sen. Tracie Davis, who is asking DeSantis to call a special session and provide immediate financial relief for policyholders, during a recent news conference. “We all know that he’s running for president, but we have real problems, real issues.” 

While the problem predates DeSantis’ time in office, it marks a moment of irony for the presidential candidate who made a name for himself dismissing climate-informed financial decision making as a “woke” ideological ploy, rather than a reasoned response to the physical reality of climate change, which scientists believe is making precipitation from hurricanes more intense.

Read Laura Gersony’s full report at ABC News

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.

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