Real Climate Victories are Possible
Journalists Kate Aronoff and Somini Sengupta Tell the Stories
Promises and claims of progress in reducing fossil fuel emissions have so often been misleading that it makes sense to be skeptical about new announcements. And doomsday disaster scenarios are already playing out in the most vulnerable locations around the world. News of even small climate victories may thus be difficult to credit.
But check out the articles excerpted below, by Kate Aronoff who writes regularly for the New Republic and Somini Sengupta at the New York Times. In my opinion, they are two of the very best journalists on the climate beat.
Both can be consistently relied on for their depth of expertise and reporting skills. Aronoff's reporting focuses on what is now called mitigation, while Sengupta reports primarily on adaptation by those affected around the world. Each of them are well aware of the obstacles to change on both fronts. But they also are attentive to signs of hope.
Aronoff was a leader in the divestment movement at Swarthmore more than a decade ago. Now, in addition to her reporting, she is the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet--And How We Fight Back. Sengupta, who has reported for The New York Times from around the world, is the author of The End of Karma: Hope and Fury among India's Young.
May 4, 2023
Passing the Build Public Renewables Act into the state budget took years of organizing and canny political strategy to build support for public renewable energy generation.
Four years after setting climate goals, New York has finally passed some bills to make good on them. Climate organizers this week can claim major victories in an otherwise depressing state budget passed over a month behind schedule. Among them are the country’s first statewide ban on gas hookups in new buildings, a “cap and invest” program selling greenhouse gas allowances to polluters, utility debt relief, and a boost in funding for public transit, including a pilot program for free buses. But perhaps the most notable win is a mandate that the public sector step in where the private sector fails to deliver on the state’s goal to get 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.
The Build Public Renewables Act mandates that the New York Power Authority, or NYPA, generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030, phasing out its six gas-fired peaker plants five years ahead of its previous 2035 target. It further empowers the state-owned institution to build and own renewable energy infrastructure. The years-long fight over the BPRA highlights just how tough passing climate policy can be even in what might seem like ideal conditions, like a Democratic supermajority and a virtually unlimited cache of federal tax credits to expand renewables via the Inflation Reduction Act.
In deep blue New York, establishing climate goals at all required ousting right-leaning Democrats who caucused with Republicans, handing the GOP a de facto majority in Albany. After finally passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, New York’s Democratic supermajority repeatedly failed to pass legislation making good on its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 85 percent by mid-century. Public power has been a rallying cry for the eco-socialist caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, who in New York saw the opportunity for NYPA—the largest state-owned public utility in the country—to build clean energy in a way that wouldn’t be dictated by the whims of profit-seeking shareholders. The broader Public Power NY Coalition was formed in late 2019 to make that happen.
Building the coalition necessary to pass the BPRA has been a multi-year, mammoth effort. In addition to protests, canvasses, and phone banking, the campaign led by Public Power NY—which includes a number of environmental justice organizations, unions, and community groups, in addition to NYC-DSA—turned public power into an election issue. DSA in particular led the charge to primary Democrats over their positions on it. David Alexis primaried Senate Energy Committee chair Kevin Parker largely over his failure to move the bill forward last year. Alexis fell short, but Sarahana Shrestha—who’d worked on the public power campaign as an organizer with the Public Power NY Coalition—gave DSA its first win upstate after campaigning on the issue in her bid for Assembly District 103. BPRA advocates also enlisted national elected officials they’d helped elect, including Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to put pressure on Hochul and other lawmakers.
“I don’t think there was an option to come out of this budget without BPRA,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, a DSA member who has represented Astoria, Queens, since winning his seat in 2020. “The governor would never be mistaken for an eco-socialist, but was the first to propose the idea that BPRA should be in the budget. What we passed,” he told me, “is indicative of the power that eco-socialists have built across the state—power that, despite caricature, does not exclusively live online.” Like a number of progressive and DSA-aligned legislators, Mamdani voted no on the “Big Ugly” omnibus bills Hochul put forward as a means of voicing opposition to its lack of tenant protections, walk-backs on bail reform, and failure to raise taxes on New Yorkers making more than $5 million.
Dissent, Spring 2023
The Inflation Reduction Act presupposes a private sector–led transition. But battles over its implementation could build the political constituencies and expertise needed to take on the fossil fuel industry.
The Inflation Reduction Act would not have happened without the movement for a Green New Deal, but it shouldn’t be confused for one. The climate left (broadly defined) now faces a novel problem: how to deal with having won something—and keep fighting for more.
It’s understandably hard for those who supported Green New Deal proposals for transformative investments in public goods to see the IRA—a bundle of tax credits whose benefits accrue largely to corporations—as a consolation prize. For the many climate hawks galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, it’s also a far cry from what, for a moment, looked to be within striking distance: governing power.
In some ways the IRA’s passage—and Republicans taking back the House a few months later—marks a return to normal for the climate left. But Democratic Party politics have changed. Top Democratic policymakers openly discuss the need for industrial policy (what one International Monetary Fund paper dubs “the policy that shall not be named”), and hundreds of billions of dollars will soon go out the door to build up domestic supply chains for things like battery storage and critical minerals. In practice, however, that means letting the public sector shoulder the risks of an energy transition while the private sector reaps the rewards. By all accounts the White House seems to imagine climate policy as the project of turning clean energy technologies into a more attractive asset class for investors.
None of this obviates the need for a Green New Deal. Every path to staving off runaway climate catastrophe runs through enormous investments to scale up zero-carbon energy and a simultaneous, brutal confrontation with the fossil fuel industry. Even given unlimited resources, the former simply won’t overpower the latter fast enough. Trillions of dollars in future revenue—coal, oil, and gas that has yet to be dug up and burned—need to be made worthless, even when the market disagrees. Only the state can keep a company from doing what is profitable.
Among the most exciting parts of the IRA is the invitation it presents for organizers to create proof of concept for public power as an alternative to for-profit energy. While for decades only private companies with massive tax liability were able to use renewable energy tax credits, public power providers, local and tribal governments, and others can now take advantage of an uncapped pool of IRA-provided funds to construct their own not-for-profit clean energy installations. Municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives can broadcast the benefits of public investment from the Texas Hill Country to the Tennessee Valley, touting job creation and cheaper energy bills. Climate campaigners could join forces with unionized utility workers to demand that free money from the IRA for everything from transmission lines to energy efficiency isn’t left on the table.
The New York Times, April 27, 2023
When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. Like Judith Harry and her neighbors, they are sowing pigeon peas to shade their soils from a hotter, more scorching sun. They are planting vetiver grass to keep floodwaters at bay.
They are resurrecting old crops, like finger millet and forgotten yams, and planting trees that naturally fertilize the soil. A few are turning away from one legacy of European colonialism, the practice of planting rows and rows of maize, or corn, and saturating the fields with chemical fertilizers.
“One crop might fail. Another crop might do well,” said Ms. Harry, who has abandoned her parents’ tradition of growing just maize and tobacco and added peanuts, sunflowers, and soy to her fields. “That might save your season.”
It’s not just Ms. Harry and her neighbors in Malawi, a largely agrarian nation of 19 million on the front lines of climate hazards. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world.
This is out of necessity.
It’s because they rely on the weather to feed themselves, and the weather has been upended by 150 years of greenhouse gas emissions produced mainly by the industrialized countries of the world.
Droughts scorch their soil. Storms come at them with a vengeance. Cyclones, once rare, are now regular. Add to that a shortage of chemical fertilizers, which most African countries import from Russia, now at war. Also the value of its national currency has shrunk.
All the things, all at once. Farmers in Malawi are left to save themselves from hunger.
As global warming threatens the two main varieties, coffee growers in Uganda are betting on a type that can stand up to heat, drought and pests.
New York Times, April 28, 2023
First the bad news. The two types of coffee that most of us drink — Arabica and robusta — are at grave risk in the era of climate change.
Now the good news. Farmers in one of Africa’s biggest coffee exporting countries are growing a whole other variety that better withstands the heat, drought and disease supersized by global warming.
For years, they’ve just been mixing it into bags of low-priced robusta. This year, they’re trying to sell it to the world under its own true name: Liberica excelsa.
“Even if there’s too much heat, it does fine,” said Golooba John, a coffee farmer near the town of Zirobwe in central Uganda. For the past several years, as his robusta trees have succumbed to pests and disease, he has replaced them with Liberica trees. On his six acres Mr. John now has just 50 robustas, and 1,000 Libericas.
He drinks it, too. He says it’s more aromatic than robusta, “more tasteful.”
Catherine Kiwuka, a coffee specialist at the National Agricultural Research Organization, called Liberica excelsa “a neglected coffee species.” She is part of an experiment to introduce it to the world.
If it works, it could hold important lessons for smallholder coffee farmers elsewhere, demonstrating the importance of wild coffee varieties in a warming world. Liberica excelsa is native to tropical Central Africa. It was cultivated for a little while in the late 19th century before petering out. Then came the ravages of climate change. Growers resurrected Liberica once more.
“With climate change we ought to think about other species that can sustain this industry, globally,” Dr. Kiwuka said.
At the moment, the goal is to grow high-quality Liberica excelsa for export.
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