The Status Quo Was Never Inevitable
By Mary Annaïse Heglar
In this week’s podcast episode, Amy and I talked to Adam Serwer (of The Cruelty Is the Point fame) about the very real perils facing global democracy and how that interacts with the climate crisis. It seems obvious to me that a crumbling climate would destabilize political systems, but you wouldn’t think so to look at the media coverage of either topic. It’s almost like both crises are happening on two, well, different planets.
The conversation with Adam went in a lot of different places, including toward circus fires, but there was one idea that I think is important to question: the assumption that our status quo was inevitable. It comes up when we talk about the ways that states with large fossil fuel economies (hello Texas and Louisiana) tend to side with the fossil fuel industry. It comes up again when we talk about whether or not democracy is essential for climate action, bearing in mind that you can have swifter, albeit not exactly more humane climate action, through a dictatorship. Just because you have a democracy and more people have a say, Adam argued, does not necessarily mean that people will make the right choice.
True enough, but I take issue with the premise that any of these events were a given. There’s a popular theory (probably most associated with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel) that asserts that the evolution of America was inevitable, given its natural resources and the historical context in which the country was built. But this ignores the fact that hundreds of sovereign nations had been living sustainably on this land for centuries before the colonizers arrived. The oil was here then too, and there's’ even some historical documentation of Indigenous peoples using it for light and heat.
But beyond that, it also ignores the specific, targeted activities of a few individuals, who very purposefully set out to build the fossil fuel industry, and shaped the nation’s policies to suit it. It was not very long ago that there was no such thing as a “fossil fuel state.” As I pointed out in the episode, oil drilling has always been a dangerous activity, and it didn’t take long for early prospectors to realize that, or for early capitalists to understand that they needed to be able to drill and refine in places where people didn’t have the power to say much about it. That required a lack of democracy, enabled by white supremacy.
None of it was a given. It was not happenstance. Greedy white men worked ruthlessly to make it happen. The same is true of the climate crisis. Just like slavery and colonialism–very powerful people chose to do those things. Which means they could have chosen not to.
I know that makes our work sound daunting, but to me that makes it sound possible. This, people, is where the hope is. If someone else did the hard work to make this world as shitty as it is, that means we can do the hard work to make a new, better world. If they can fuck it up, we can fix it up. Buckle up, buttercup.
By Amy Westervelt
As someone who’s reported on corporate disinformation for a really long time I’m kinda shocked at the huge gaping hole in the way that everyone from academics to reporters to politicians tends to treat political disinformation as an entirely different beast from corporate disinformation. There’s also this assumption that disinformation only really took hold in America when social media platforms provided a new distribution mechanism for it. It’s especially weird in the context of the United States’ current information pollution problem because in this country disinformation is far from new. Corporate disinformation has been around almost as long as the country has been—in fact you could make the argument that this country was founded on disinformation, the idea that this big empty country was just sitting here waiting for white people to make it profitable—and it’s been warping the information ecosystem for more than a century.
I’ve been documenting that history for years now, and many social scientists were documenting it way before me.In fact, here’s a handy online archive and explainer I built for those who want to explore further. In broad strokes, the corporate disinformation industry formally emerged in this country in the late 1800s. We call it PR today, but back then it went by its real name: propaganda. (They rebranded in the 1930s when the Germans started to give propaganda a bad name, that’s a real quote from one of the early PR guys!)
Why did America need to create the modern PR industry in the late 19th century? Three reasons: (1) the vote was expanding to people who didn’t share the interests of the captains of industry, (2) there was an explosion of both labor unions and muckraking journalists so all of a sudden capitalists were being criticized by the public, and, (3) probably most importantly, this country finally decided to start regulating business beginning with the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. Corporations and the wealthy white men who ran them needed a way to ensure that all these new voters wouldn’t support onerous business regulations; to do that, they also needed to get the media in line and ensure politicians would continue to do their bidding.
The PR men who came up with corporate disinformation strategies for industries like coal, tobacco, rail, and, yes, oil would go on to help the government sell two world wars too, and then go back to manipulating the public on behalf of corporations. In later decades, men trained in psychological warfare by the military would put those skills to work tricking the public into buying things, or politicians into passing or blocking policy. There’s never really been much difference between the types of disinformation, or the people peddling them, nor is there any possible way that one form of disinformation wouldn’t influence another. Publicists were staging fake protests (and accusing actual protests of being fake) more than a hundred years ago…did anyone really think that would just remain contained as a trick for selling stuff and not for permanently warping public discourse? There’s no reason to separate Facebook’s penchant for ads filled with misinformation from the PR firms that craft those ads. And you can’t separate the PR industry’s favorite technique—hiring fake experts to do everything from argue against taxes to discredit the science underlying the cancer risk of smoking or the atmospheric risk of greenhouse gasses—from the slow unraveling of trust in science and expertise that’s created the anti-vaxxer Big Lie soup we’re all swimming in.
As we say a lot around here, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t understand its root causes. In this case, it’s a disinformation industry that’s been around as long as the country itself, and is doing exactly what it was set up to do.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
By Mary Annaïse Heglar
We’ve heard some truly revolting shit in the time since the Uvalde school shooting. We’ve heard about children calling 911 for help, while police officers were amassed outside but afraid to go in because they “might get shot.” We’ve heard about police officers physically restraining parents who wanted to go in to rescue their children. By my count, we haven’t heard an apology yet.
Instead, what we’ve gotten are absolutely asinine solutions, the latest of which came from Lindsey Fucking Graham just yesterday. (Yes, that’s his actual middle name. Google it.) I can’t hear these inane suggestions to fix everything except the problem (guns, if I’m not being clear), and not hear echoes of every argument ever against climate action. For example, when they say we need to add more police to schools to make them safer, all I hear is that we need the oil companies at the table to solve climate change. When they argue that we need to arm the teachers and the kids and the class hamsters so that we have more “good guys” than “bad guys,” with guns, I hear the old argument that we need more natural gas drilling to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. When they say it’s video games or mental illness—not the easy access to guns—at the root of the mass shooting crisis, I hear them questioning how we know climate change is caused by human-run industries.
Every single one of these arguments is made in bad faith. They sound absurd because they are, but that doesn’t mean that the people making the arguments are stupid. That’s where the Left usually gets tripped up and folks on the Right know that. They know that leftists can’t help but dunk on a bad or stupid “take” in order to signal to the world how smart they are. Therefore, we wind up on Talk TV or the Twitter machine dunking on these people and, in effect, taking their very unserious argument seriously. Look, it’s one thing to point out the flaw in their logic, but we have to always remember that the people making these arguments aren’t trying to offer a solution, they’re trying to distract and delay the rest of us from implementing the extremely obvious solution.
It’s all from the same playbook, and that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Amy points out constantly, it’s all the same people. Plus, as the Buffalo massacre demonstrates, guns are a key pillar of the right wing climate strategy. How else are they going to keep all those people of color—or as they like to call us “mud people”—away from their precious resources? Don’t get me wrong, these folks were gun nuts with a blood lust for people of color long before the climate crisis, but ecological collapse has a way of turning paranoid people into hysterical maniacs. If they clung to their guns before, now it’s really a death grip.
It’s Not Biased to Question Lies!
By Amy Westervelt
Months before Putin gave the order for Russian soldiers to invade Ukraine, the fossil fuel industry began shaping the narrative around how that invasion would impact global oil prices. In late 2021, Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, made the rounds of all the cable news shows (not just Fox, but also CNBC, CBS, Bloomberg, and CNN) explaining that gas prices—which had been steadily climbing ever since Putin began mobilizing soldiers to the Ukraine border in March 2021—were high because of “climate policy.” What climate policy?
Sommers pointed over and over again to three key examples: the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, the pausing of oil and gas leases on federal lands, and the reversal of the government’s position on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He would go on to point to these three policies over and over again in coming months as *the key* to high gas prices. Even though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made the global oil markets nervous about the prospect of war, and the oil and gas industry was hesitant to increase production (multiple CEOs told shareholders they’d rather pay out high dividends than rush to increase production, even at unusually high prices). Instead, he blamed Biden’s climate policy, which he could never find more examples for than these original three. None of these things has anything to do with short-term supply, let alone the price at the pump.
I’ve written about this ad nauseam, but once more, quickly, here we go. Keystone wouldn’t have been online by now (and was transferring tar sands oil from Canada to export terminals on the Gulf, where the bulk of the fuel was destined for other countries). The industry is sitting on millions of acres of unused leases, and didn’t need anymore—when pressed on this, fossil fuel execs will pivot to “well we need permits to drill, not just the leases,” but permits weren’t a problem either. The U.S. has never allowed drilling in ANWR with the exception of three years under Trump, during which time only two small companies bid on leases, none of the oil majors. It’s also worth noting that production has not decreased under Biden. In fact, in 2021, average daily production of oil in the U.S. outpaced the (pre-Covid!) daily production in 2017 and 2018, while total barrels produced was only slightly less than the highest number of barrels produced under Trump. Point being: none of Biden’s “climate” policies have had any impact on the supply of oil today. But the bigger issue is that the price of gas at the pump isn’t really governed by supply anyway! Obviously Mike Sommers knows that. So do his various proxies, folks like Mike Wirth at Chevron and Ryan Lance at ConocoPhillips.
Unfortunately, very few journalists seem to know it, and politicians appear to be equally ignorant about how gas prices are set. To which I say, Jesus Christ, fucking Google it and educate yourselves if you’re going to have Mike Sommers on your news show or in your Congressional hearing!
Here, I’ll make it easy for you: The biggest driver of price at the pump is the price per barrel of oil—that’s actually something the API says on its own damn website—and that is largely driven by commodity markets, which respond to global signals (like, you know, one of the world’s largest oil producers invading a sovereign country and pissing off the rest of the world). That’s especially true today because, thanks to lobbying from the oil and gas industry, the U.S. is now a major exporter of oil and gas and thus even more deeply entwined with global commodity markets. Other costs that go into the price at the pump include distribution, marketing, and taxes. Oil majors like to pretend that refining and distribution are some other industry altogether, but most of them own and operate many of their own refining and distribution operations. ExxonMobil, for example, is one of the largest refiners in the world. Gas stations do set their own prices, but that price is based on the wholesale price they pay from distributors. So while Mike Sommers is out here with his shit-eating grin, calling oil companies “environmentalists” while blaming high gas prices on Biden’s non-existent “climate policy,” the industry is raking in profits and paying out record-high dividends. Journalists need to know enough to question this narrative or, better yet, to not have the industry’s biggest shill—literally the president of their lobbying group—on to explain gas prices.
It’s not just gas prices, either, armed with a peer-reviewed study from earlier this year and the explosive Carbon Bombs reporting from The Guardian last month, journalists have everything they need to refuse to amplify lies from the industry about how they’re part of the climate solution. It’s way, way, way past time for the media to refuse to launder industry bullshit.
Rising Temperatures, Rising Tides
California's Drought Is So Bad, It's Going to Slash Hydropower by Angely Mercado for Earther
Climate change is forcing schools to close early for 'heat days' - The Washington Post, by Laura Meckler and Anna Phillips
Climate change ravages Iraq as palm trees make way for desert, by Azhar Al-Rubaie for Al Jazeera
We cannot adapt our way out of climate crisis, warns leading scientist, by Fiona Harvey for The Guardian
Tropical storm warning for parts of Florida, Cuba, Bahamas | AP News, by Frida Frisaro and Curt Anderson
Here's where dangerous ticks are spreading across the US — and what to do about them by Benji Jones for Vox
Warmer Nights Caused by Climate Change Take a Toll on Sleep, by Victoria St. Martin for Inside Climate News
New Mexico Wildfires: Mapping an Early, Record-Breaking Season - The New York Times by Tim Wallace and Nadja Popovich
It's Going to Be a Hot Summer. It Will Be Hotter if You're Not Rich. by Anne Barnard, Corey Kilgannon, Jazmine Hughes and Emma Goldberg for The New York Times
Carbon Dioxide Levels Are Highest in Human History - The New York Times by Henry Fountain
Death toll in Brazilian floods rises to 106, 10 still missing | Reuters, by Reuters Staff
How humid air, intensified by climate change, is melting Greenland ice, by Kasha Patel for The Washington Post
How Mass Shootings, Ecofascism and Climate Change Got Tied Together, by Kristoffer Tigue for Inside Climate News
'Vicious cycle': Storms intensify in the Gulf as climate changes, by Giorgio Cafiero for Al Jazeera
Facing a power crisis and searing heat, India falls back on coal, by Gerry Shih for The Washington Post
Q&A: Why the disaster prevention agenda is growing more urgent, by Irwin Loy for The New Humanitarian
A Hotter World - The New York Times by German Lopez
Agatha strikes Mexico as its strongest May hurricane, by Jason Samenow for The Washington Post
The Climate Presidency
The Supreme Court just okayed Biden's “social cost of carbon.” It's still way too low. by Sigal Samual for Vox
Here's how the government wants to disaster-proof your home | AP News, by Freida Frisaro
Why Won't the Environmental Protection Agency Fine New Mexico's Greenhouse Gas Leakers? - Inside Climate News, by Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
Drought-stricken US warned of looming 'dead pool' - BBC News, by Regan Morris and Sophie Long
Why can't the US stop soaring oil and gas prices? - BBC News, by Natalie Sherman
US EPA sets 2020-2022 biofuel blending mandates, denies refiners waivers | Reuters, by Stephanie Kelly and Jarrett Renshaw
A New GOP Climate Plan Is Long on Fossil Fuels, Short on Specifics, by Dan Gearino for Inside Climate News
Democrats and the endless pursuit of climate legislation | Grist by Shannon Osaka
Youth Mental Health and Climate Disaster Have to Be Addressed by Legislation | Teen Vogue, by Madigan Traversi and Giselle Perez for Teen Vogue
The War on My Homeland Offers a Real Chance to Save the Planet | The Nation, by Svitlana Romanko
Texas' Anti-Business, Pro-Fossil Fuel Law Is Spreading by Molly Taft for Earther
Zelenskyy Slams Russia for Damage to Environment, by Ben Makuch for Vice
Opinion | Climate Change Needs Durable Solutions. Tree Planting Isn't One, by Zeke Hausfather for The New York Times
Immersed in crisis, Peru neglects Amazon's destruction | AP News, by Fabiano Maisonnave
Plastic Recycling Doesn't Work and Will Never Work - The Atlantic, by Judith Enck and Jan Dell
Watchdogs Tackle the Murky World of Greenwash - Inside Climate News, by Patrick Temple-West, The Financial Times
Russia's war on Ukraine will have toxic environmental impacts that span decades by Benji Jones for Vox
Why the Texas power grid is vulnerable to blackouts during winter storms and heat waves by Neal Dhanesha for Vox
The GOP's New Climate Plan Is Bogus | The New Republic by Kate Aronoff
Bills in blue states target the fossil fuel industry for climate damage - The Washington Post, by Maxine Joselow and Vanessa Montalbano
9th Circuit Court blocks permits for fracking off California coast, by Christian Martinez for the LA Times
At Davos, climate activists say major issues ignored | AP News, by Peter Prengaman
Bills in red states punish climate-conscious businesses - The Washington Post, by Maxine Joselow and Vanessa Montalbano
Nations Are Nowhere on Their Climate Commitments, and Too Few Journalists Are Holding Them Accountable, by Andrew McCormick for The Nation
How an Organized Republican Effort Punishes Companies for Climate Action - The New York Times by David Gelles and Hiroko Tabuchi
Republicans' new climate plan is light on substance | Grist by Shannon Osaka
Report sheds light on Fidelity's little-known fossil fuel ties by Emily Pontecorvo for Grist
Here in Poland, “Going Green” Means Burning Even More Coal | The Nation, by Kamila Kadzidlowska
An industry built on a fallacy of carbon neutrality | Grist, by Grist Creative
In a small Dutch town, a fight with Meta over a massive data center - The Washington Post, by Tracy Brown Hamilton
Justice Is Justice Is Justice
14 Hawai'ian Teens Sue State, Transit Department Over Pollution, by Jacqui Germain for Teen Vogue
As natural gas expands in Gulf, residents fear rising damage | AP News, by Cathy Bussewitz and Martha Irvine
A Texas county wants to punish polluters. The state won't let it. | Grist by David Leffler & Savanna Strott
A Slow Violence Comes to an End in LA | Atmos, by Yessenia Funes
Glimmers of Hope
Supreme Court Delivers a Rare Win for Environmental Policy by Kevin Hurler for Earther
Shell Consultant Publicly Quits Over Company's 'Extreme Harm' to Earth, by Audrey Carleton for Vice
Volcanic cones near peak sacred to tribes gain protection | AP News, by Susan Montoya Bryan
Once eager to drill, oil companies exit leases in Arctic refuge, by Steven Mufson and Joshua Partlow for The Washington Post
Inside Clean Energy: Think Solar Panels Don't Work in Snow? New Research Says Otherwise, by Dan Gearino for Inside Climate News
Key nations agree to halt funding for new fossil fuel projects, by Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson for The Washington Post
Climate pressure from employees, shareholders rattles Big Oil, by Steven Mufson for The Washington Post
Climate in Culture
Banned Books Every Climate Nerd Should Read by Angely Mercado for Earther
The Language of Water | Atmos, by Yessenia Funes
Going Deeper | Atmos, by Willow Defebaugh
What it's like to rent an electric car for the first time, by Natalie B. Compton for The Washington Post
You Want to Buy Meat? In This Economy? - The New York Times, by Annaliese Griffin
The VICE Guide to Having Sex During a Heatwave Without Getting a Heat Stroke, by Jaishree Kumar for Vice
Clean, green superhero dog fights garbage in Chile | Reuters, by Rodrigo Gutierrez
Underwater Ruins of Ancient Lost City Emerge Due to Extreme Drought, by Becky Ferriera for Vice
Elif Shafak: there's a scream building up in young people, by Lucy Knight for The Guardian
Product Drops—But Make It Mindful | Atmos, by Lauren Cochrane
Endangered Anegada rock iguanas are being eaten like popcorn by cats, by Murray Carpenter for Washington Post
True Colors | Atmos, by Willow Defebaugh
Tesla owners love their cars. Elon Musk? Not as much, by Karen Heller for The Washington Post
Inside the Secret Lives of India's Independent Wildlife Rescuers, by Arman Khan for Vice
Catherine Coleman Flowers on America's Dirty Secret | Atmos, by Catherine Coleman Flowers, as told to Yessenia Funes
World’s Biggest Organism Found in Australia, Is 4,500 Years Old, by Becky Ferreira for Vice
Can cross-breeding protect endangered species from the climate emergency? | Evolution | The Guardian, by Ida Emilie Steinmark