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As the odometer turned over into Wednesday—not long before President Trump took to a White House stage to demand that vote-counting cease—the U.S. officially withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. The nation that has poured far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other is currently also the only nation not officially involved in the global effort to slow global warming.
If Joe Biden manages to squeak past the gates of the Electoral College—as I am writing this, the returns are looking promising but by no means certain—America will rejoin the diplomatic effort shortly after he takes office. Given that the first rule of holes is, when you’re in one, stop digging, that counts for a lot. Biden would be able to reverse many of the executive actions that Trump has taken to undercut the environment; he could probably kill some pipelines and protect some national forests. But, if he takes office and does so—as seems likely—without a working Senate majority, it will complicate efforts to truly take on the climate crisis from Washington. The Paris pact was a series of voluntary “accords” precisely because the rest of the world knew that no actual treaty would ever get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass the United States Senate. And, with Mitch McConnell still in charge, the chance of getting even the kind of climate legislation that would let us increase the ambition of the modest and voluntary targets that we set in the original agreement seems slim, which, in turn, takes at least some of the pressure off of other governments. It’s not that we won’t try—and, God knows, the young people of the Sunrise Movement have shown a remarkable ability to defy the conventional wisdom as they’ve pushed the Green New Deal to the fore. But the election hasn’t produced the outcome that the planet badly needed.
That’s particularly ironic, because exit polling made clear that one of the few things that unites Americans is a desire for more clean energy. Even Fox’s pollsters found that seventy per cent of voters favored “increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.” But, since that consensus doesn’t include the G.O.P. leadership, we may have to take that margin and put it to work in places other than the capital—in the country’s cities and states, for example, which are already driving the clean-energy push. A Biden Presidency should be able to protect California’s electric-vehicle mandate, for instance, and that should be enough to keep Detroit driving in the right direction.
But it’s also worth remembering that Washington is just one power center in the United States. Wall Street is the other major one, and its biggest constituencies—people with money—live in the solidly blue corners of the country. A Biden Treasury Secretary or S.E.C. chair will make it easier to pressure the big banks and the asset managers to take the financial risks of fossil-fuel investment more seriously—but this is also a place for movements to focus. The StopTheMoneyPipeline coalition (which, full disclosure, I helped organize) put enough pressure on JPMorgan Chase over the past year that the bank—the world’s biggest fossil-fuel lender—declared, last month, that it would become “Paris aligned.” It’s not yet clear how much that means, but continued pressure will force Chase and others to keep pushing the boundaries.
In an ideal world—well, in an ideal world we wouldn’t be at Hurricane Eta, wreaking havoc on the people of Nicaragua. We’re not in an ideal world. We are where we are, and we have to do all that we can.
Passing the Mic
With winter weather already rampant in parts of the country, it seems an opportune moment to talk with Kathy Baughman McLeod, the senior vice-president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation at the Atlantic Council, where she helps lead the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance. To draw attention to the rising scourge of deadly heat waves, the group—which includes everyone from the Red Cross Global Preparedness Center to the city of Tel Aviv—has proposed naming heat waves in much the same way that we identify hurricanes—giving them recognizable monikers in alphabetical order, so that there’s more of a way to focus public attention on them. Our interview has been edited for length.
Why name heat waves? What did this summer teach us about them?
This summer taught us that we are fundamentally and ridiculously exposed to extreme high temperatures and the often deadly risks that come with them. People are dying from heat and heat waves, and we don’t really know it or fully understand it. It’s called a “silent killer,” because we record these illnesses and deaths as something else—like kidney failure or heart attack. Heat is killing more people in the U.S. than floods and hurricanes combined, and the numbers are still seriously deflated. We also know that, in the U.S., heat disproportionately affects low-income and Black and brown communities. They were (arguably still are) victim to racist urban-planning policies that have left them especially susceptible to the urban heat-island effect. Low-income areas tend to be treeless, concrete-filled neighborhoods that are significantly hotter than adjacent, leafy, wealthier neighborhoods. Tree-shaded surfaces, for example, can be twenty to forty-five degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded streets and sidewalks.
This summer, as well as the record-breaking summer that we had in 2019, also taught us that heat is the mothership of climate risk—it exacerbates hurricanes driven by warmer air and warmer water, drought and desertification, devastating and cataclysmic wildfires, food insecurity, water shortages, increased violence, and immense economic loss. And it’s not just extreme heat. It’s the slow-roasting increased nighttime temperatures that don’t allow the body to cool down and repair itself. We are literally cooking ourselves. And, during the day, when temperatures are most dangerous, outdoor workers are severely exposed—think of all the farmworkers and delivery drivers out there bringing our COVID-19-induced deliveries all day long.
Naming heat waves can give this deadly risk the spotlight it desperately needs, and bring media attention, improved advance warning, new public policy, protection for outdoor workers, resources, and a culture of better preparation that can result in saving lives.
Should we be buying heat-wave insurance? What’s the economic impact of extreme heat?
Cities in countries that are less used to dealing with extreme heat are especially vulnerable. The 2003 heat wave in Europe led to seventy thousand deaths. In addition to loss of life, cities—especially ones with older infrastructure that is not designed for these temperatures—are exposed to heat risks to structures, transportation, and other critical systems during heat waves. Insurance that covers heat impacts right now is in the life-and-health and business-interruption product lines. Property and casualty insurance for heat is virtually nil.
The economic impact of heat waves is massive. They can cut goods and service outputs by more than twenty per cent in sectors such as manufacturing and construction. Global economic costs of reduced productivity could reach two trillion dollars by 2030. From 2002 through 2009, the U.S. health-related cost of heat waves was $5.3 billion.
Wouldn’t it make the most sense to name them for oil companies? Or climate-denying politicians?
Aha! I saw this idea on Twitter, too. If the latest predictions for rising temperatures hold true, we’ll run out of names in both categories pretty quickly, given the frequency of heat events we’re seeing and the number we expect in the coming years.
The British billionaire investor Chris Hohn said that most E.S.G.—environmental, social, and governance—investment funds are “a total greenwash” and that investors “need to wake up and realise that their asset managers talk but don’t actually do.”
If you think that wind turbines are shiny new tech, here’s an engrossing essay on the more than a million windmills that dotted the American West a century ago, mostly to pump water. “Self-governing water pump windmills soon became a staple of the American homestead,” the writer, Ryan Schnurr, noted. “They were simple, well-constructed, and dependable, the windmill equivalent of a pair of denim jeans.”
More frequent drought is setting up the Great Plains for something that looks altogether too much like a replay of the Dust Bowl, a new study finds. “Our results suggest a tipping point is approaching, where the conditions of the 1930s could return,” Gannet Hallar, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, who led the study, said.