Let Them Build Seawalls

by Bill McKibben

Greeehouse Emissions

As a good Dish reader, I know I’m supposed to take libertarianism seriously, and so I try, even if every time I contemplate Ayn Rand I find myself wishing I’d been born to a different species. It’s possible that my trouble stems from the fact that dealing with climate change is notoriously difficult for libertarians: if you burning the coal in your coal mine raises the sea level around my continent, something’s amiss. So too many theoretically rational and science-minded libertarians have tended towards denying the physics of global warming, just to avoid dealing with the implications for the philosophy. (There are of course honorable exceptions, like Ronald Bailey at Reason).

But this is really rich. Writing from his perch at the Cato Institute, Charles “Chip” Knappenberger explains why the U.S. should avoid taking a leadership role in any climate negotiation: because others have more at stake:

Such information is carefully concealed in Obama Administration reports, such as the one issued recently by the Council of Economic Advisors that predicts escalating costs the longer we delay serious climate change mitigation efforts. Instead of focusing on domestic costs of climate change, the report is built around an estimation of the global cost for carbon dioxide emissions—which, by the Administration’s numbers—is some 4 to 14 times greater on a per ton of emitted CO2 basis than those projected for the U.S.

Translated: climate change is going to be worse for Bangladesh, so let them deal with it. And it is going to be worse–it already is. People are starting to evacuate their island nations as seas rise. It’s true we may lose Miami, but we’re well off enough, perhaps, to take the hit. Asks Knappenberger sweetly:

Why should the President’s rush to restrict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, which even his own officials say raises concerns about domestic energy costs and grid reliability, be justified upon supposed benefits which will largely accrue to foreign nations?

That would be piggish enough right there–but of course what Knappenberger doesn’t even mention in his column is that we’re the reason that Bangladesh has a problem. They hardly emit any co2–they’re a rounding error in any calculation. Whereas the United States has contributed more by far than any nation to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (China won’t match us even by 2030, and on a per capita basis, we’ll be champs forever).

Knappenberger’s logic will doubtless play well in the GOP as it stymies any nascent Obama administration effort to lead the world in a new direction. But if the libertarian creed is about people taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to getting away with what they can, this is crass.

(Chart from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)

Tax Scam, AKA Business as Usual

by Bill McKibben

Tim Dickinson is out with a superb piece of reporting in Rolling Stone today–a long investigation that picks up where yesterday’s headlines about Burger King and Tim Horton’s (and last month’s about Walgreens) left off. It turns out that these corporate “inversions” are huge business, and  part of a trend that dates back at least to the Clinton administration where corporations have bent tax law to make sure their profits stay overseas and beyond the reach of the IRS. The numbers are staggering:

More than $2 trillion in U.S.-based multinational profits currently sit in offshore accounts, representing, by credible estimates, in excess of $500 billion in unpaid taxes. If that money were deposited in federal coffers tomorrow, it would wipe out the deficit for 2014. And every year that Congress dithers on a crackdown, America is forfeiting an approximate $90 billion in revenue.

The offshoring is a complete fiction. The money often comes from US sales, and even though it’s technically in Lichtenstein or the Jersey Islands or Ireland,

 these untaxed profits are not stranded. “There’s this false notion that these funds are locked in a strongbox somewhere,” says Edward Kleinbard, a former chief of staff for Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. In reality, these untaxed foreign profits are often banked, by the offshore subsidiaries themselves, in Manhattan – where they’re used to invest in stocks and U.S. Treasury bonds. “The money,” says Kleinbard, “is already back in the U.S. economy.”

It’s worth reading the entire piece, especially for the unsurprising but infuriating denouement: lawmakers, even the ones rhetorically at odds with these practices (i.e., Democrats) are actually facilitating the whole process. This is the kind of comprehensive reporting we see too little of.

The Golden Era of Radio

by Bill McKibben


I may have mentioned that most of this week is being spent cleaning. That means I’ve had my earbuds in for several hours at a time. And that means, in turn, I’ve been reflecting on just what a golden age of radio, or at least of words spoken magically through the ether, we are lucky enough to live in.

Almost no one ever covers radio, though its reach is astonishing: All Things Considered beats the network tv newscasts (in more ways than one). But ATC and Morning Edition are smooth and dependable but rarely intriguing, provocative, sublime. Those adjectives are better reserved for the various podcasts that have grown up in the wake of This American Life. There’s only one Ira Glass, but there are other wonderful and quirky voices, many of them at the moment allied together in the Radiotopia collective, a kind of Justice League for smart documentarians and sound artists sponsored by the wonderful Public Radio Exchange, one more brainchild of Jay Allison who is the man behind much of the great radio that ever gets made. All seven of the podcasts in the series will draw you in and make you forget you’re washing windows; one of the newest and most intriguing voices belongs to Benjamen Walker, whose Theory of Everything evolved from a show he did on WFMU for years. He specializes in a kind of shaggy dog storytelling that lingers in one’s ear.

Most of these shows are not on most of your radio stations—they largely get listened to on podcasts, because most public radio program directors are about as conservative as it’s possible to be. (There are times when it appears public radio stations are in a contest to see who can achieve the oldest possible demographic).

I don’t promise I won’t write more about some of my favorites this week, in part because it annoys me how little attention gets paid these programs. The Times reviews almost every movie that comes out (I enjoy reading their reviews of part 6 of some slasher series) and even though I’ve never seen Breaking Bad I can tell you pretty much everything about it because of the number of stories I’ve read. Radio not so much—the people who make it do so without much public feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. So plug your favorites via dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Update: Read the follow-up to this post here.

(Photo, which has been cropped, by Johan Larsson)

Climate Trial-Ballooning

by Bill McKibben


The NYT is out with a story today that the Obama administration is “devising” a politically ingenious strategy to get around the fact that no Senate in the foreseeable future will ever muster a 2/3 vote to approve an actual treaty on global warming. The story really isn’t newseveryone has known this for years, though the Times adds a little more detail about how such a scheme might work:

American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.

Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts.

If this sounds dubious to you, it will also sound dubious to those countries being hit hardest by climate change. At this point, however, the desperation of the rest of the world for any kind of leadership from the U.S. might convince them to cobble something together, especially since the French, who will have leadership of key negotiations in Paris in 2015, seem inclined to go along (they’re desperate not to come up empty, like the Danes after the Copenhagen climate fiasco):

There’s a strong understanding of the difficulties of the U.S. situation, and a willingness to work with the U.S. to get out of this impasse,” said Laurence Tubiana, the French ambassador for climate change to the United Nations.

The real questions, as always, will be less the form of any agreement than the content. The only concrete thing that international negotiators have ever agreed on is that the world can’t let the planet’s temperature rise more than two degrees Celsius. So far nothing that the US or most other nations have proposed would get us therewe’re solidly on track for four or five degrees. Unless the Obama administration sends a sharp signal that it wants serious–as opposed to face-savingaction, that course is unlikely to change. Keep an eye on that two-degree figure, and on the Keystone Pipeline, a bellwether for whether they’re willing to suffer any political pain.

(Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Hair–And World–On Fire

by Bill McKibben

Statewide Drought Takes Toll On California's Lake Oroville Water Level

This afternoon a draft of the next report from the world’s climate scientists to the world’s political leaders leaked to a few reporters. In the words of Justin Gillis at the NYT, it showed those scientists using even “blunter, more forceful” language than ever before to warn that

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades,

and that

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions…The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said.

Short of actually engaging in self-immolation (with resulting carbon emissions), it’s hard to imagine what more scientists can do at this point to warn us. The report apparently lays out the math of climate in just the terms I described in this morning’s post about the fossil fuel divestment campaign:

The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.

That means if society wants to limit the risks to future generations, it must find the discipline to leave the vast majority of these valuable fuels in the ground, the report said.

Did I mention that there is a large-ish march being planned for New York on Sept. 21? There is. In a rational world, a lot of people would show up to demand that political leaders actually pay attention to this kind of warning.

(Photo: Boaters launch their boats hundreds of yards away from designated boat ramps at Folsom Lake on August 19, 2014 in Folsom, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the State’s lakes and reservoirs is reaching historic lows. Folsom Lake is currently at 40 percent of its total capacity of 977,000 acre feet. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodman Mountain

by Bill McKibben

New York State officials are gathering in a remote part of my beloved Adirondacks this splendid August day to dedicate a new hiking trail up a mountain with a new name: Goodman Mountain, in honor of Andrew Goodman, one of the three civil rights volunteers killed fifty years ago in Philadelphia Mississippi in what some have called the “Pearl Harbor of the civil rights movement.”andrewgoodman_375

Goodman was 20, son of a prominent family who vacationed every summer in the Adirondack hamlet of Tupper Lake. One of his two colleagues, Michael Schwerner, 24, spent his summers not far to the south on Great Sacandaga Lake. They were paired with James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippi native, and almost immediately after their arrival in the South they were abducted and murdered by local whites.

The hunt for the men became a cause celebre, with involvement right up to the White House, and to many civil rights activists that became proof that white lives mattered more than black ones–Schwerner’s widow, herself an organizer for the Congress on Racial Equality, told reporters that if Chaney alone had been murdered it would have gone unnoticed. It doubtless was a valid complaint–this, as we learned again in Ferguson this month, is a nation with a deep ability to overlook the victimization of African Americans.

But none of that lessens Goodman’s nobility, nor the fact that his disappearance helped bring home the reality of the movement struggles to a very different and distant place. North Country Public Radio, in a remarkable piece earlier this summer, quoted from a 50-year-old edition of the local paper:

The civil rights struggle waged with increasing bitterness in recent months, and observed with detached interest by most of us as something largely outside our experience took on reality earlier this week with a disappearance under apparently tragic circumstances of a volunteer in that cause who spent much of his young life here in Tupper Lake.

Andrew Goodman, 20, one of three civil right workers who disappeared Sunday, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goodman and the grandson of the late Charles Goodman who erected the palatial Shelter Cove Camp a short distance from Bog River Falls on Big Tupper Lake in 1933.

Every Adirondack peak is majestic in its own way, but I’m eager to climb this one soon–it stands a little taller than its USGS marker would indicate, I think.

Massive Selloff

by Bill McKibben

Well, sort of. News overnight that Australia’s prestigious Sydney University has announced its endowment will stop making any new investments in coal, and start reviewing its existing holdings. It comes after an intensive campaign from Greenpeace Australia, and my friends at 350.org, and is only one of many victories for the divestment campaign in recent weeks: the Unitarian Universalist Association, the World Council of Churches, Pitzer College, and the University of Dayton (a big Catholic research university in that green stronghold of Ohio) have joined Anglican dioceses, Stanford University, the United Church of Christ, and a great many others in what an Oxford paper described as the fastest growing movement of its kind ever.

The divestment camp has made two basic arguments. One, we’ve said, it’s simply wrong to invest in companies whose business plans involve finding, digging up, and burning far more carbon than the world’s scientists say is safe: if that’s your plan, than you’re not a normal company, you’re a rogue. You may not be breaking the laws of the state, but you are committed to violating the laws of physics.

Two, even if you don’t care about the future of the, you know, earth, it’s also an unwise gamble to keep doubling down on fossil fuel, because your investment only makes sense if the world takes no action to rein in carbon emissions. If the planet’s leaders ever get their act together, then many of the reserves that undergird company valuations will be “stranded,” much like the condo developments abandoned in the Nevada desert during the last housing crash. That argument has been more persuasive than I would have guessed when we launched this drive.

Not everyone is convinced, of course:

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said it was “a shame that Sydney University has caved in to the bullying of environmental activists masquerading as financial advisers”.

“The divestment campaign is environmental activism dressed up as investment advice and anyone choosing to take investment advice from environmental activists do so at their own financial risk,” Mr Galilee said, adding a recent report commissioned by the council had found the fossil fuel divestment case was based “on false premises and unsubstantiated claims, and may breach Australian law”.

But in fact, coal stocks have been a drug on the market. New York State’s pension fund alone has managed to lose $100 million over the last few years investing in black rocks. In this case, one might be better off taking investment advice–or advice period–from Desmond Tutu, who helped lead the last great divestment drive (from apartheid South Africa) and now is a key voice for fossil fuel divestment:

The taste of “success” in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.