Jon Stewart’s Struggle to Name the Real Problem
By Amy Westervelt
This week, The Problem with Jon Stewart put out a climate episode and sent #ClimateTwitter into a frenzy. Our pal Kendra Pierre-Louis did a comprehensive Twitter thread pointing out the various flaws in the segment, and I’m gonna get to those in some detail below.
But first, The Good! This episode did an excellent job pointing out that in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it’s going to take more than individuals conserving energy or reducing their carbon footprints. Guests Jesse Jenkins and Heather McTeer Toney both did a great job of steering the conversation toward available solutions and the need to center equity. And Stewart mostly held his own in an interview with Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden. I particularly enjoyed the part where Van Beurden claimed the fossil fuel industry hasn’t blocked climate policy, Stewart pointed out that the API has, van Beurden said “Well we don’t agree with everything API does,” and Stewart asked: Aren’t you on their board?
Before I pivot to The Problems, we can’t expect every show to nail every climate segment, or for talking points that have been around for a century to magically disappear overnight. Frankly, this show did a better job than most. (Also kudos to them for inviting Kendra on their podcast to discuss further!)
BUT (you knew the but was coming), it’s important to highlight problematic frames when we see them, and there were several in this episode worth drawing attention to. I spotted five of the fossil fuel industry’s favorite takes on climate here:
1. Oil Is Progress.
The American Petroleum Institute has been telling this story for about 150 years: Oil enables progress, it is the basis of the American dream and the fuel of all our success over the past century. Oil companies successfully argued this point a few years back in a San Francisco court as well. Chevron's attorney, Ted Boutrous, speaking on behalf of all the oil company plaintiffs, argued that asking the courts to hold oil companies responsible for their role in climate change was akin to "challenging the way human civilization has developed to this date," and then he laid the blame at the feet of consumers, arguing that there's no evidence consumers would have changed their behavior had oil companies been truthful about climate change back in the 1980s. The argument successfully won over 9th Circuit judge William Alsup, who said: “We’ve been using fossil fuels for the entire industrial revolution. We won the Second World War with fossil fuels. If we didn't have fossil fuels, we would have lost that war and every other war. Airplanes couldn't fly, ocean liners couldn't fly, the trains wouldn't run, and we would be back in the Stone Age. ”
In his climate segment, Jon Stewart parroted this talking point as well, noting: “Fossil fuels have been the engine of progress over the last 100 years, we are as addicted to them as they are to us,” and “Fossil fuels power our comfort and convenience and the fact that they lead to impending doom probably won’t get us to change our ways.” Super weird point to make after just debunking the idea that climate change can be solved by small shifts in consumer decisions. Here’s the thing: it’s not oil (or gas or coal) that enabled all that growth and development, it’s affordable energy. And part of what made fossil fuels affordable for a century is that their actual cost—including in the form of climate change—has been pawned off onto the public. ALSO, the "progress" and comfort that Stewart describes Americans as enjoying? Um, not all Americans! More than 13 percent of Americans live in poverty as of 2021; that's more than 40 million people, many of which do not have any of the comforts Stewart describes.
2. The Problem Is Human Nature.
This is a real favorite of not only the fossil fuel industry but also of people who have mostly benefited from existing power structures. hockingly, when you benefit from a man-made system, your tendency is to cast that system as "nature," inevitable, immutable human nature. We are short-sighted and self-absorbed, the argument goes, or in Stewart’s version: “We’re not a prevention folk.” While of course it’s true that the human brain has not evolved to be great at long-term thinking there have now been enough short-term catastrophes related to fossil fuels that the majority of humans on the planet have been saying for several years now that we need to do something different.
Stewart cites the pandemic as an example of the fact that Americans refuse to do what's best for the collective--it's true, this is a fatal flaw in our society, one I've researched and written about extensively, but it's not "human nature." It's a mentality pretty unique to America and for some specific reasons that Stewart never even gets close to naming. Also guess what, turns out human societies, including even here in the U.S., managed to balance long- and short-term with nuclear energy just fine. (In fact some would argue that long-term thinking has dominated the regulatory approach to that energy source.) So we know it’s possible. The other thing this argument does is go along with the fossil fuel industry’s favorite story, that it simply supplies a demand. That we want what it’s selling and it is just obliging us. Again, there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary. In the 1970s when the Arab oil embargo constrained oil supplies in the U.S., Americans got very good at conserving energy, very quickly. We also ramped up innovation around alternative energy sources rapidly. All of which prompted U.S. oil companies to push for more drilling permits, ratchet up production as quickly as they could, and then work together to figure out a price low enough that it would get Americans over-consuming again. There's a more recent example, too: As companies have grappled with a natural gas glut, they have not stopped fracking, but merely found a new revenue stream in the form of plastic. It’s not “human nature,” nor is it inevitable, it’s actually just how capitalism works and it’s weird that neither Stewart nor his guests ever name it in this segment.
3. Renewables Won’t Work As a Solution Because of Intermittency.
Echoing fossil fuel companies and, even more so, utilities Stewart also made the point that the problem with renewables is not their cost or ability to scale, but the issue of intermittency—the fact that the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours a day. No one got into the advancement of energy storage over the past decade, which has gone a long way toward solving this problem. Jenkins helpfully noted that while, yes, we do need something to handle base load and ensure reliable energy, shifting the grid to be dominated by renewables is still a climate win, and there's a lot of research underway for figuring out the base-load. Toney pointed out that reducing methane emissions just 30 percent in the near term would reduce warming in the short term and buy us more time to figure out the right mix on the grid—requiring emissions reporting and banning flaring and venting could get us most of the way toward doing that, but again the oil and gas industry in the U.S. has been fighting such proposals.
4. Big Oil Needs a Seat at the Table.
This brings us to the most problematic point in this episode, and unfortunately one that Stewart spent the bulk of his time on: the need to work with, not against, oil companies. On the one hand, he’s quite right to point out that governments around the world are so heavily lobbied and compromised by the industry that it’s hard to imagine any sort of regulatory approach that would bring them in line quickly enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change. On the other, the idea that the solution to that is putting oil companies in charge of the transition belies a real ignorance of history. And of how the industry behaves today too, for that matter. One recent peer-reviewed study, for example, found that none of the big oil companies are actually doing anything to materially progress toward their stated net-zero goals.
There were lots of additional fossil fuel talking points mixed in here, too. For one: the idea that if we regulate U.S. and European companies, the Saudis and Russia will benefit, for example (never mind that all of those companies have joint ventures with the nationalized Saudi and Russian oil companies all over the world already). For another: because it’s just the oil companies that people are trying to hold accountable, it won’t do any good because there’s a whole system beyond them that also needs to change (that was, no surprise, offered up by the former Shell exec on the panel). It was actually Shell CEO Ben van Beurden who shared a key solution here: government mandates that force transition. It’s bizarre that, rather than even murmur the word “nationalization” Stewart floated the ridiculous idea of governments paying oil companies to clean up the problem. We’re all already paying to clean up their mess, the U.S. government has subsidized the fossil fuel industry for a century, and it is currently paying to deal with the industry’s orphan well issue, another environmental problem the industry has dumped on the public. Stewart seems to have missed the entire point of accountability (and the activism he felt necessary to mock throughout the episode): eroding social license, and loosening the industry’s grip on the regulatory apparatus is necessary to force its transition.
5. But What About Developing Countries?
There’s nothing the oil execs, their favorite politicians, and rich white guys in general love more than the idea that a global shutdown of the fossil fuel industry will mire millions in the Global South in permanent poverty. Somehow these folks want us to believe their great focus in life is solving poverty around the world. "How can it be fair that we, in the industrialized North, ask the Global South to give up fossil fuels and the progress that comes with them?" they ask. Again, there’s just a lot of missing information here.
For starters, the fact that none of these dudes ever seems to actually look at what folks in the Global South are asking for, or the negative impact that fossil fuel development has had in countries like Nigeria and in America for that matter! Where do you think refineries are sited, and what impact do you think they have on those communities, hmm? Then there’s that assumption again that it’s fossil fuels—rather than source-agnostic “affordable energy”—that enables development. There’s no immutable law that says societies must go from wood burning to fossil fuels to alternatives, it is imminently possible for the Global North to help the Global South leapfrog fossil fuels altogether without stopping progress and development, which Jenkins helpfully pointed out in this segment, noting that the solution is to make clean energy cheap enough to power the world. Again, how do you have this conversation without mentioning the words capitalism and colonialism?
I'm often accused of being overly obsessed with oil companies as the villains, but frankly I think people who worry about villainizing oil companies are missing the point. Oil companies are, of course, behaving exactly as the system incentivizes them to behave. But they also helped to create that system. So whenever people suggest that we are going to change the system without stripping oil companies of their power, to me it suggests an ignorance of how the system actually came about and an assumption of inevitability that's not actually backed by evidence.
But What Was She Wearing?
By Mary Annaïse Heglar
One of the mercies that comes with spending less time on Twitter is that you miss some of the Dumb Discourse. And this week, it looks like I missed a doozy: the debate over whether or not we should “say climate.”
You read that right.
As I understand it (and called Amy to confirm): Sarah Bloom Raskin was nominated to one of the top jobs at the Federal Reserve Bank. This week, everybody’s favorite West Virginian sank her hopes of confirmation because of her—checks notes—acknowledgement of climate change and the need for banks to factor the risks it comes with into their investments.
America Does Have a Free Speech Problem, Just Not the One the NYT Is Worried About
By Amy Westervelt
The New York Times has once again made it clear that it really doesn't want people thinking of it as a "liberal" paper, publishing a piece from its editorial board this week that feels like maybe Charles Koch wrote it. Citing a remarkably faulty survey, the piece argues that Americans today feel less free to speak their minds about controversial issues, all because of "cancel culture." I don’t know about “cancel culture,” but public shaming is real (although I've only ever see it impact the sorts of people who don't publish op-eds about it) and I think mob justice sucks. But the "problem" this NYT op-ed describes sounds more like the affliction of…wealthy white people having to think twice before they make ignorant statements in public. Oh the horror! This is not "cancel culture" actually, nor is it an infringement on free speech. Nor is this piece a good-faith argument about the First Amendment.
You can tell because it engages far more with nebulous social discomfort than anything that actually constitutes an erosion of First Amendment rights (one line on book-banning laws doesn't really cut it).
The Climate Story Doesn’t Stop, So Don’t Stop Telling It
By Mary Annaïse Heglar
Last month, Amy wrote with cautious optimism about the increasing rates of climate coverage. The numbers were up and several major outlets were announcing plans to expand their climate desks (even if not always with the right experience). Well, the trend didn’t quite carry over into February. According to the folks at the Media and Climate Change Observatory, climate coverage in February was 7 percent lower than it had been in January. It was 16 percent lower than it was in February 2021. In the United States, print coverage dropped by 8 percent and television coverage dropped by 24 percent.
Your weekly roundup of climate coverage.
Rising Temperatures, Rising Tides
Wildfires Are Fueling a Dangerous Feedback Loop of Arctic Warming by Ed Cara for Earther
Texas wildfires fueled by gusty winds burn at least 50 homes - Los Angeles Times in the Associated Press
Air pollution linked to higher risk of autoimmune diseases, by Anna Bawden for The Guardian
Ukrainian Refugees Today, Climate Refugees Tomorrow | Atmos, by Yessenia Funes
World far short of climate goals during 'decade of action' -report | Reuters, by Valerie Volcovici for Reuters
Sun sets on Mexico's paradise beaches as climate crisis hits home, by Feike de Jong for The Guardian
A drowning world: Kenya's quiet slide underwater, by Carey Baraka for the Guardian
Eastern Antarctica sees record temperatures 70 degrees above normal - The Washington Post, by Jason Samenow and Kasha Patel
Clean energy superstar or smokescreen for fossil fuel use? Here's what you need to know about hydrogen, by Tik Root for The Washington Post
The Climate Presidency
The U.S. Government Doesn't Control Domestic Oil Production. But It Should, by Amy Westervelt for The Intercept
Biden Administration Falls Short on Crucial Climate Goal by Molly Taft for Earther
Biden's chance to tackle climate change is fading amid global energy upheaval - The Washington Post, by Anna Phillips and Tony Romm
The Fight in Washington Over the Fed's Climate Policy Is Just Heating Up by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic
High gas prices present a big dilemma for Democrats - The Washington Post, by Maxine Joselow and Vanessa Montalbano
NOAA Expects Drought Conditions to Persist Through the Spring by Maggie Astor for the New York Times
Sunrise Issues Memo to Democrats Calling for Green New Deal Commitments by Lexi McMenamin for Teen Vogue
Push for mining metals for electric vehicles splits Democrats, environmentalists - The Washington Post, by Maxine Joselow and Vanessa Montalbano
The $1.5 trillion government spending bill is full of little climate projects by Zoya Teirstein for Grist
The biggest funder of anti-nuclear war programs is taking its money away by Dylan Matthews for Vox
EU countries back plan for world-first carbon border tariff | Climate Crisis News | Al Jazeera, by Al Jazeera and News Agencies, Reuters
Shell directors sued for 'failing to prepare company for net zero', by Damien Gayle for The Guardian
The Oil Crisis Is Making Fossil Fuel Executives Cocky and Vengeful by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic
SEC plans to force public companies to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, by Douglas MacMillan and Maxine Joselow for The Washington Post
Tennessee Valley Authority Defies Biden's Clean Energy Goals by Lisa Friedman for the New York Times
The Global Oil Market Is Based on a Fiction by Robinson Meyer for the Atlantic
The World Has One Big Chance to Eliminate Plastic Pollution by Rebcca Altman and Tridibesh Dey for the Atlantic
'Last Gasp for Coal' Saw Illinois Plants Crank up Emission-Spewing Production Last Year by Brett Chase and Dan Gearino for Inside Climate News
California's Climate Reputation Tarnished by Inaction and Oil Money by Liza Gross for Inside Climate News
The Man Who Could Help Big Oil Derail America's Climate Fight by Chris McGreal for The Nation
Justice Is Justice Is Justice
IPCC report: How bad will climate migration get? by Umair Irfan for Vox
Deforestation in Amazon Rainforest Threatens Indigenous Lands by William Langewiesche for The New York Times
Op-Ed: How can the White House fix environmental injustice if it won't take race into account? By Alvaro Sanchez and Manuel Pastor for The LA Times
People Deserve to Know Their Houses Are Going to Burn by Emma Marris for The Atlantic
Redistricting could make it harder for tribes to protect the environment by Joseph Lee for Grist
'This is a fossil fuel war': Ukraine's top climate scientist speaks out by Oliver Milman for Grist
The census undercounted people of color. Here's what that means for environmental justice. by Adam Mahoney for Grist
The US Is Facing a Maternal Health Crisis. Climate Change Is Making It Worse. by Danielle Renwick for The Nation
War in Ukraine and Climate Change Could Combine to Create a Food Crisis - Scientific American by Sara Schonhardt and Benjamin Storrow for Scientific American
Glimmers of Hope
Climate Activists Flex Their Political Muscle by Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam for The New York Times
Chile's new President Boric signs Escazu environmental treaty | Environment News | Al Jazeera, by Al Jazeera and Reuters
Honolulu scores a win against Big Oil in climate change lawsuit by Chrisina Jedra for Grist
Sadiq Khan: 'Climate crisis is a racial justice issue' as black and Asian Londoners most affected by Nadine White for the Independent
They spent years locked in a train car. Now four tigers can feel the grass beneath their feet, by Ana Vanessa Herrero for The Washington Post
Climate in Culture
Jane Fonda's new climate PAC is taking on fossil fuel-backed politicians by Eve Andrews for Grist
Nicole McLaughlin Can Repurpose Just About Anything | Atmos, as told to Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
The Sacred Women of the World | Atmos, by Ruth H. Hopkins
The Sunrise Movement Rethinks Approach to Creating Change by Molly Ball for Time
Inflation is at a 40-year high. Is clean energy the solution? by Shannon Osaka for Grist
High gas prices have a lot more people searching for electric vehicles by Chad Small for Grist
True Blue | Atmos, by Willow Defebaugh
Eunice Foote: The First Climate Scientist's Legacy | Atmos, by Yessenia Funes