Month: April 2021

Share The Intellectual Property On COVID-19

Intellectual Property must serve the global good, rather than humanity serving the interests of a few private companies. And in the case of COVID-19, the global good is not in doubt: rapid worldwide immunization, in order to save lives, prevent the emergence of new variants, and end the pandemic.

The governments of South Africa, India, and dozens of other developing countries are calling for the rights on intellectual property (IP), including vaccine patents, to be waived to accelerate the worldwide production of supplies to fight COVID-19. They are absolutely correct. IP for fighting COVID-19 should be waived, and indeed actively shared among scientists, companies, and nations.

The pharmaceutical industry and the governments of several vaccine-producing countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Commission, have been resisting the IP waiver, while 150 public leaders and experts have sent an open letter to US President Joe Biden in support of it. There is no longer any question about who is right. Given the surge of COVID-19 in several regions, most recently in India, the continuing emergence of new and deadly variants of the virus, and the inability of the current vaccine producers to keep pace with global needs, an IP waiver or its equivalent has become a practical urgent need as well as a moral imperative.

As a general principle, IP should not stand in the way of scaling up production to fight COVID-19 or any other public health emergency. We need more countries to be producing vaccines, test kits, and other needed commodities. IP-related delays could mean millions more COVID-19 deaths and more viral mutations that sweep across the entire world population, possibly infecting people who have already been vaccinated.

And yet we face a situation in which the world’s urgent needs are pitted against the narrow corporate interests of a few US and European pharmaceutical companies. The companies are even trying to turn their opposition to an IP waiver into a geopolitical issue, arguing that China and Russia must be prevented from gaining the knowhow to produce mRNA vaccines. This argument is immoral, indeed potentially homicidal. If opposition to IP waivers slows the production of effective vaccines in China and Russia, it would directly endanger Americans, Europeans, and everyone else.

Even in the best of circumstances, IP involves a balancing act of costs and benefits. Patents give an incentive for innovation, but at the expense of granting 20 years of monopoly power to the patent holder. The benefits of innovation must therefore be weighed against the cost of monopoly power that limits supply. In a deadly pandemic, the choice is clear: we should waive the patent rights in order to increase the supplies of life-saving commodities in order to end the pandemic.

The relevant international law, known as the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement, already recognizes the right and occasional need of governments to override IP in the case of public health emergencies by invoking a compulsory license. A compulsory license gives local companies the right to use patent-protected IP. The right to compulsory licensing of IP to protect public health was already agreed in 2001 as part of TRIPS in the case of production for domestic use. In 2005, it was extended to cover production for exports to countries that lack their own production capacity.

It is likely that Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa could develop the capacity for increasing the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Yet these countries are reluctant to invoke compulsory licenses for fear of retaliation by the US Government or other governments where patent-holders are based. The proposed general waiver of IP would overcome the fear of each country in invoking a compulsory license, and would solve other heavy bureaucratic obstacles in using compulsory licenses. A waiver would also be helpful for non-vaccine technologies (solvents and reagents, vaccine vials, test kits, and so forth).

An IP waiver could be carefully designed and targeted. Patent-holders should still be compensated at a reasonable rate for the successful use of their IP. The waiver should be limited to COVID-19, and not extended automatically to other uses. And it should be temporary, say for five years.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that an IP waiver would deprive the industry of its rightful profits, and of financial incentives for future drug development. Such claims are greatly exaggerated, and reflect greed over reason. The IP held by Moderna, BioNTech-Pfizer, and others is not mainly the result of those companies’ innovations, but rather of academic research funded by the US Government, especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The private companies are claiming the exclusive right to IP that was produced largely with public funding and academic science.

Some of the key scientific breakthroughs of mRNA vaccines were achieved by two researchers working under NIH grants at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s and early 2000s, and their pioneering work relied on a network of academic researchers funded by the NIH. The University of Pennsylvania still owns key patents that have been sub-licensed to BioNTech and Moderna. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the US government provided at least $955 million to Moderna to fund accelerated work, including the clinical trials, and also entered into an advanced market commitment with BioNTech-Pfizer. All in all, the recent US Government support for the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines has totaled more than $10 billion.

The companies brought in private investors to build up manufacturing capacity and the late-stage research and development and clinical trials needed to bring the vaccines to fruition. This is indeed an important role, and private investors put substantial sums at risk to carry it out. But they have done so with the US Government as an indispensable partner.

The private investors will surely earn huge returns, so they should restrain their greed (or have it restrained for them) by recognizing the need to share the IP globally at this stage. Moderna is currently capitalized at some $73.4 billion, compared with the roughly $1.1 billion in equity raised by the company’s initial public offering in 2018.

The benefits of mRNA and other IP should be made available globally without further delay, and the knowhow should be shared as rapidly and widely as possible. We have the capabilities to scale worldwide immunization, in order to save lives, prevent the emergence of new variants, and end the pandemic. IP must serve the global good, rather than humanity serving the interests of a few private companies.

Renewable Energy Is Suddenly Startlingly Cheap

Earth Week has come and gone, leaving behind an ankle-deep and green-tinted drift of reports, press releases, and earnest promises from C.E.O.s and premiers alike that they are planning to become part of the solution.

There were contingent signs of real possibility—if some of the heads of state whom John Kerry called on to make Zoom speeches appeared a little strained, at least they appeared. (Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, the most carbon-emitting developed nation per capita, struggled to make his technology work.) But, if you want real hope, the best place to look may be a little noted report from the London-based think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative.

Titled “The Sky’s the Limit,” it begins by declaring that “solar and wind potential is far higher than that of fossil fuels and can meet global energy demand many times over.” Taken by itself, that’s not a very bold claim: scientists have long noted that the sun directs more energy to the Earth in an hour than humans use in a year. But, until very recently, it was too expensive to capture that power. That’s what has shifted—and so quickly and so dramatically that most of the world’s politicians are now living on a different planet than the one we actually inhabit. On the actual Earth, circa 2021, the report reads, “with current technology and in a subset of available locations we can capture at least 6,700 PWh p.a. [petawatt-hours per year] from solar and wind, which is more than 100 times global energy demand.” And this will not require covering the globe with solar arrays: “The land required for solar panels alone to provide all global energy is 450,000 km2, 0.3% of the global land area of 149 million km2. That is less than the land required for fossil fuels today, which in the US alone is 126,000 km2, 1.3% of the country.” These are the kinds of numbers that reshape your understanding of the future.

We haven’t yet fully grasped this potential because it’s happened so fast. In 2015, zero per cent of solar’s technical potential was economically viable—the small number of solar panels that existed at that time had to be heavily subsidized. But prices for solar energy have collapsed so fast over the past three years that sixty per cent of that potential is already economically viable. And, because costs continue to slide with every quarter, solar energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels almost everywhere on the planet by the decade’s end. (It’s a delicious historical irony that this evolution took place, entirely by coincidence, during the Administration of Donald Trump, even as he ranted about how solar wasn’t “strong enough” and was “very, very expensive.”) The Carbon Tracker report, co-written by Kingsmill Bond, is full of fascinating points, including how renewable energy is the biggest gift of all for some of the poorest nations, including in Africa, where solar potential outweighs current energy use by a factor of more than a thousand. Only a few countries—Singapore, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and a handful of European countries—are “stretched” in their ability to rely on renewables, because they both use a lot of energy and have little unoccupied land. In these terms, Germany is in the third-worst position, and the fact that it is nonetheless one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy should be a powerful signal: “If the Germans can find solutions, then so can everyone else.” Clearly, those few nations are going to be importing some renewable energy—a more farsighted Australian Prime Minister would be figuring out how to send ships full of solar-generated hydrogen to Japan, not how to continue shipping coal to China. (And, in fact, the world’s largest solar farm is set to end up in the Australian outback, connected by at least two thick undersea cables to Singapore.)

The numbers in the report are overwhelming—even if the analysts are too optimistic by half, we’ll still be swimming in cheap solar energy. “We have established that technical and economic barriers have been crossed by falling costs. It follows that the main remaining barrier to change is the ability of incumbents to manipulate political forces to stop change,” the report reads. Indeed. And the problem is that we need that change to happen right now, because the curves of damage from the climate crisis are as steep as the curves of falling solar prices. Given three or four decades, economics will clearly take care of the problem—the low price of solar power will keep pushing us to replace liquid fuels with electricity generated from the sun, and, eventually, no one will have a gas boiler in the basement or an internal-combustion engine in the car. But, if the transition takes three or four decades, no one will have an ice cap in the Arctic, either, and everyone who lives near a coast will be figuring out where on earth to go.

That conundrum was illuminated on Friday, when word came that Governor Gavin Newsom, of California, who has been under pressure from an unrelenting activist campaign, agreed to ban new fracking permits in his state and end fossil-fuel production there altogether. This is a stunning achievement—for the planet and also for the California communities (and you can guess what kinds of communities they are) that currently have oil wells in their schoolyards and next to their hospitals. The environmentalists who banded together in the Last Chance Alliance should be incredibly proud; Newsom (who is now facing a recall election) deserves credit, as well, because this is precisely the step that his famously green predecessor, Jerry Brown, did not take. The fracking ban, though, only affects a small percentage of California’s oil production, and won’t take effect until 2024. The ban on oil production would not happen until 2045, which in climate terms is the very distant future—a decade past the date when California will ban the sale of new gas-powered cars, which are the main use of oil in the state. It’s clear why Newsom is slow-walking the changes. An executive secretary of a building-trades council immediately responded, “We will work to oppose this effort for our membership, their families, our schools, and our future. I have one question for Gavin Newsom: Are our jobs too dirty for you?”

Change is hard. The job of politicians is to make it easier for those affected, so that what must happen can happen—and within the time we’ve been allotted by physics. But that hard job is infinitely easier now that renewable energy is suddenly so cheap. The falling price puts the wind at our backs, as it were. It’s the greatest gift we could have been given as a civilization, and we dare not waste it.

Passing the Mic

Audrea Lim is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has written for this magazine, and also for Harper’s, the Times, and The Nation. She is the editor of the book “The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America’s Unsung Environmental Movement,” which the New Press will publish next week. For the book, she surveyed America, finding the people who are powering the environmental movement now. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)

People may have an image in their mind of what an environmentalist looks like—but what does an environmentalist actually look like in 2021?

They don’t look any one way! Far from the “white college-educated hippie” stereotype, environmentalists are Black and brown youth transforming an abandoned jail into a community farm; a former coal miner turned blogger and environmental advocate; Asian, Latinx, and indigenous people creating healthier and more equitable neighborhoods for their kids.

“Environmentalist” just describes any people defending the quality of their surroundings. This work can be local (protecting air or water from toxic emissions or lead paint in the walls) or global (protecting the glaciers and oceans that regulate local climates, from Brooklyn’s streets to the Alaskan coast). The health, safety, and well-being of their communities hang in the balance, but many activists understand that these goals also require bigger changes, from better access to parks, recreation, and community spaces to more localized food systems and good, clean jobs. I think that’s why many environmentalists don’t even call themselves “environmentalists.” They are culture-makers, or community, housing, labor, and immigration activists who understand that environmental issues are ingrained in every part of society, and have simply made them a core element of their work.

What are the most important insights that came as, say, the climate movement morphed into the climate-justice movement?

That climate change will touch every community, demographic, and region, but is also on track to devastate poor and bipoc communities the most. Many of these communities already struggle to meet basic needs—food, housing, education, physical and mental health—making them more vulnerable to sudden shocks, as we’ve seen through the pandemic. Many of these communities also live near polluting developments (factories, refineries, waste incinerators) or on eroded and contaminated lands (mines, Superfund sites), or lack proper water and sewage infrastructure. These are added risks when the fires and floods arrive.

This uneven burden is part of America’s legacy of environmental racism: a history of hazardous, polluting fossil-fuel developments being concentrated in communities of color—sometimes by design and often through neglect. It’s the conjoined twin of residential segregation. But, in addressing this reality head on, the climate-justice movement also has another important insight to offer: everyone benefits when we empower these communities to build more equitable, resilient local economies, and transition away from the dirty industries long looming over them.

If you could pick one story that would really stick in people’s minds and hearts, what would it be?

Eric Enos grew up on the Waianae Coast of Oahu, with little knowledge of his Native Hawaiian culture, including the central importance of taro, a root vegetable. (Native culture was suppressed under U.S. colonialism.) After graduating from college, in the seventies, he began teaching art to Native youth-gang members, taking them to dive in the ocean, protest the conversion of local fishing grounds into a resort, and hike in the back of the desiccated Waianae Valley. Here they found abandoned walls and terraces in the ground. These were clearly cultural sites, but what were they?

Archeologists at the Bishop Museum found that the entire area was once under taro cultivation, as well as other traditional Hawaiian plants. The water had long ago been diverted toward colonial sugar plantations, but, with guidance from a state senator and local agencies, Enos, the youth, and community members built a new irrigation system. A group of multi-ethnic taro farmers, whom they had earlier helped defend against eviction from their lands, helped prepare the terraces for cultivation. And, with seeds donated from the Lyon Arboretum, they began growing native plants, learning about the land, their own culture, and taro in the process.

These were the beginnings of Ka‘ala Farm, a cultural learning center that connects troubled youth to the land. The story underscores how different institutions and people from different communities can collaborate toward a more equitable and resilient future.

Climate School

Two former Prime Ministers of Australia wrote an insightful op-ed about why their country, bathed in sun, continues to insist on building more coal mines and gas wells. They note that “the main thing holding back Australia’s climate ambition is politics: a toxic coalition of the Murdoch press, the right wing of the Liberal and National parties, and vested interests in the fossil fuel sector.” Last week, the center-left Australian Labor Party, too, said that it will not stand against building more coal mines, and believes that the nation will be exporting the black rocks past 2050.

A wonderful leftover from Earth Day: Tia Nelson, the daughter of the late senator Gaylord Nelson, who launched the April day of action, in 1970, wrote about how her father helped welcome Joe Biden to the Senate, in 1973, comforting him after his wife and infant daughter had been killed in a car crash. Nelson said, of her father, “It would delight him to see that something he started so long ago, to shake the Washington establishment out of its lethargy, still playing such an important role these many years later. And he would be moved to see that the heartbroken young man he helped recover from despair is carrying his legacy forward.” It’s remarkable how long Biden has been around—one good effect is that he’s known some superb people.

A new study has found that climate change will cause lakes in the Northern Hemisphere to stratify earlier in the year and over longer periods, and that “many of the ecosystem services that lakes provide, ranging from the delivery of drinking water and food to recreation, may be endangered by the projected change in stratification phenology during the twenty-first century, particularly in urbanized and agricultural regions where lakes are already eutrophic.”

A sign of what’s to come: a new renewable-energy project in Oregon marries solar power, wind turbines, and large-capacity battery storage. A spokesman for the local utility, Portland General Electric, said, “We feel pretty certain that this is what the future of renewable power looks like. It’s more diverse, and it’s more flexible.” A little further south and looking a little further into the future, the invaluable Sammy Roth, in his weekly “Boiling Point” newsletter, discusses the possibility of covering California’s irrigation canals with solar panels, to both generate clean energy and cut evaporation.

The Movement for Black Lives is launching a Red Black and Green New Deal, with a virtual summit on May 11th. Its Web site states, “We are organizing to introduce a National Black Climate Agenda that includes federal legislation to address the climate crisis by investing in Black communities and repairing past harms.”

A Yale team has developed a podcast devoted to climate policy and carbon pricing—the most recent episode is about why conservatives might be comfortable with the tactic. As Naomi Shimberg, a junior, explains, “Many conservatives echo the classic economic argument: pricing harm across the economy, rather than controlling it with direct forms of government regulation, is the most efficient way to cut pollution.”


A new report from the World Meteorological Organization documented just how dismal 2020 was in climatic terms: it was one of the three warmest years on record, with more than eighty per cent of the world’s oceans subject to at least one “marine heat wave;” extensive flooding in the Greater Horn of Africa helped trigger a plague of locusts; and severe drought in South America caused three billion dollars in crop losses in Brazil alone.

A Baylor College of Medicine pediatrician and a University of California, Davis, environmental economist published an assessment, in Scientific American, of the actual health impact of climate change. They argue that the Biden Administration should set the “social cost” of carbon at a higher level, to reflect the damage that it’s doing to “every organ system in the human body.

Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are expected to drop to record lows in the coming months, and reduced snowpacks and increased evaporation along the Colorado watershed may trigger the first-ever official water-shortage declaration in the area—and, hence, cuts in the water supply to Arizona and Nevada.

The student-body presidents of all the Ivy League schools signed a joint call for full fossil-fuel divestment last week. Meanwhile, divestment campaigners at Harvard produced a series of comic sketches as part of their ongoing efforts, and Christiana Figueres, the former head of the United Nations convention on climate change who spearheaded the push for the Paris accord, criticized the university for its investments in fossil-fuel companies, warning that Harvard management is on the verge of “breaching its true fiduciary responsibility.”

The Times obtained a detailed summary of an upcoming United Nations scientific report, which makes clear that, in addition to cutting carbon emissions, controlling methane emissions is crucial in solving the climate crisis. Along with issuing calls for plugging leaks, the report makes the critical point, according to the Times, that “expanding the use of natural gas is incompatible with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal of the international Paris Agreement.”

Warming Up

Bonnie Raitt and the Indigo Girls are among the artists who cut “No More Pipeline Blues (On this Land Where We Belong),” to raise money and awareness for the fight against Minnesota’s Line 3 pipeline. Listen for the voice of the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to be named U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

How 1.5 Degrees Became The Key To Climate Progress

It’s Earth Day +51, as we near the end of President Biden’s first hundred days, and forty world leaders are scheduled to join him for a virtual summit on climate change.

“For those of you who are excited about climate, we will have a lot more to say next week,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said last Thursday, which is a sweet way to think about it—better than “for those of you who are existentially depressed about climate.”

But, amid the blizzard of numbers that will come this week (such as a new report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showing that America is “Halfway to Zero” in cutting the carbon from its electricity sector, as long as you don’t count the methane that all those new gas-fired power plants produce), it’s possible to discern the single, unlikely number that is really driving action at the moment, and it’s important to recall how it came to enter the debate. That number is 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is enshrined in Article 2 of the 2016 Paris climate accord as the world’s official goal for how much we will let the planet warm.

In the early decades of the climate era, government negotiators used two degrees Celsius as a target—that number has a tangled history, tracing back to at least the mid-nineteen-nineties, when Angela Merkel, then Germany’s environment minister, and other European officials seized on it as a benchmark. But there was never much hard science behind it, and by the mid-two-thousands the rate of damage already observable around the planet had begun to spook researchers, not to mention the residents of the most vulnerable countries. Even though the temperature had risen less than one degree Celsius, we were already seeing extensive Arctic ice melt, for instance. So the Alliance of Small Island States, with a lot of leadership from the Caribbean nations, and some of the African countries most vulnerable to drought, began to talk about a lower target. I first remember hearing chants of “1.5 to Stay Alive” at the Copenhagen climate talks, in 2009, and the Barbadian poet Adisa Andwele performed a song of that name for the assembled delegates. But those negotiations were such a mess that the short final document that the summit produced reiterated the old target of two degrees, merely mentioning the new number as a “consideration.”

Once the new number was out there, however, it took on a life of its own, and by the time the Paris climate talks met, six years later, it had become a rallying cry for movements. Paris was a mess, too—the pledges that countries made to reduce their emissions would actually lead to a world that heats by an apocalyptic three degrees Celsius—but, as a sop to campaigners, the negotiators put the 1.5-degree target in the opening section, where, one imagines, they figured it wouldn’t do much damage. They were wrong. In the years since, the number has dramatically reorganized global thinking around the climate, setting up the possibility that we might improve on the Paris timetable.

The most important result was that, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepared a report on the projected impact of exceeding the 1.5-degree target and the steps needed to meet it. And what it found was that, in essence, we’d need to cut emissions nearly in half by 2030, and get to net zero by 2050. The language was opaque—“in model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range)”—but it was enough to reorient thinking. As the famed energy analyst Daniel Yergin told Bloomberg’s Eric Roston, in February, “I think you could say that is one of the most important sentences of the last few centuries. It has provided an incredibly powerful traffic signal to tell you where things are going.” Hence the spectacle of the biggest American banks declaring their net-zero-by-2050 plans (and the counter-spectacle of campaigners reminding them that the more important date is 2030). It was a big deal when a joint communiqué from the U.S. and China, following last week’s trip by John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, used the phrase “well below” two degrees. As Kerry told me, “That ‘well below’ two degrees language is important. That can’t logically mean 1.9 or 1.8.” Indeed, the White House explained that a key goal of the summit this week “will be to catalyze efforts that keep that 1.5-degree goal within reach.”

It’s entirely possible that, in fact, it’s no longer in reach; an Australian study published last week predicts that we’ll pass 1.5 degrees in the early two-thousand-thirties, and some recent research indicates that we could pass it as soon as 2024. But, by aiming for it, we clearly improve our chances of stopping closer to two degrees. And we’re only aiming for it—and this is the key point—because voices from the margins (tiny island nations, nascent movements) started demanding something that seemed, at first, mostly an annoyance to the powers that be. They asked for what they needed, and it’s made a huge difference. And it helps explain why, earlier this month, the remarkably farsighted Greta Thunberg said that she’d boycott the next global climate talks, in Glasgow, in November, if vaccine distribution hasn’t proceeded to the point where small, poor countries will be able to fully participate. It’s not that Tuvalu or Grenada or the Maldives put much carbon into the atmosphere—it’s that they put the important ideas into the debate.

Passing the Mic

Sally Ann Ranney is the president and a co-founder of the American Renewable Energy Institute, a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, and an adviser to the Getches-Wilkinson Center, at the University of Colorado Law School. Her new project, Global Choices, is an N.G.O. led and staffed by women, and focussed on preserving the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)

You’ve taken on the task of helping defend the Arctic ice sheet. What do the rest of us need to know about its importance?

Most people don’t know that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Why? Because the ice shield covering the Arctic Ocean is actually the centerpiece of an indispensable planetary cooling system, which is maintained by the albedo effect—the reflection of the sun’s heat and radiation back into space. When sea ice retreats, heat is absorbed by the dark ocean, warming water and air temperatures, melting more ice, and on it goes. This is affecting the very stability of global climate regulators. The jet stream, for example, has become wobbly, allowing the polar vortex to dip its killer cold as far south as Texas in February of this year. Severe droughts, fires, and floods—as far-flung as California and northern Africa—and the accelerated Siberian permafrost thaw and methane releases are suspected to be linked to Arctic sea-ice loss. The point is, the Arctic is climate-change ground zero, and Earth’s supra-systems are interconnected and interdependent. We are making this urgent situation more visible and actionable—taking it to the top of the global agenda and to the streets. Think about this: one metric ton of CO2 melts thirty-two square feet (three square metres) of ice.

At the moment, the central Arctic is kind of a commons, without an obvious owner. But what’s changing politically as the ice melts, and what kind of voice do indigenous people have as the great powers start to compete?

Geopolitics in the Arctic are heating up as the ice is melting down. Under international law, the central Arctic Ocean is part of the “high seas,” because it lies outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Climate change is taking its highest toll in the Arctic, exposing resources now hungrily eyed for exploitation and transforming the region into the new Wild West. China, India, and South Korea, along with a score of other countries, are official observers of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental advisory group. The Arctic coastal nations have submitted proposals to the U.N. to extend their two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone. The Russians’ submission is the most ambitious and contentious, extending all the way to the North Pole and across the central Arctic Ocean. Indigenous groups are becoming more vocal and active in policy, but there are differing opinions among these peoples—some of whom are ice-dependent for their livelihood and some of whom are not—about what development is acceptable. Six indigenous organizations, representing half a million of the four million Arctic residents, are permanent participants in the Arctic Council. They cannot vote, but they have veto rights. The jury is out on how nation-state ambitions are going to play out with indigenous interests.

You’ve called for a treaty or, at least, a moratorium on development for a decade, to give us time to try to reverse course. What are the prospects for that, and who will be the key players?

Global Choices is calling for immediate action to protect the Arctic Ocean ice shield from deep seabed mining, oil and gas exploitation, seismic testing, shipping, radioactive-waste dumping, and nuclear-weapons testing. We must pause the mad rush to exploit a very fragile and essential global climate regulator, in order for science to catch up and emission cuts to kick in. For anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere or mid-latitudes, loss of sea ice means wicked, longer-lasting, and more destructive weather events, resulting in higher food prices, climate refugees, and billions of dollars in losses. The U.S. has a great deal at stake, as Russia flexes its presence with ever-greater daring, bringing new meaning to “Cold War.” The mission is clear: polar ice has a much better future if we keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius. Given what’s at stake, that’s incentive enough to move this proposition forward, both at the grassroots and at the highest levels of influence.

Climate School

The French parliament took a first step toward banning short-haul domestic flights between destinations easily served by trains. Enviros pointed out that the law does less than it seems—only a few destinations will actually be taken off the timetable—but the principle seems sound, and the recommendation came from the citizens’ climate assembly that I described last year.

There are a lot of books about the climate crisis. A new one—“Overheated,” by Kate Aronoff, who covers climate issues for The New Republic—is not to be missed. It follows in the path blazed by Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything,” from 2014, critiquing the idea that corporations are likely to be the agents of real change. Meanwhile, the always interesting futurist Alex Steffen has a new podcast and blog series called “The Snap Forward.” His point, for years now, has been that speed is pretty much all that matters as we try to deal with our impending troubles.

Albert Carter, a founder of Bank.Green, a Web site that lets you compare banks by their fossil-fuel investments, last week published a short essay that does a fine job of explaining the various forms of financing—equity and debt, on primary and secondary markets—that funded the expeditions of Cortés, and continue to underwrite the fossil-fuel industry. Meanwhile, Paul Greenberg and Carl Safina argue eloquently in the Times that, even as we restrict fossil-fuel infrastructure, we’d be wise to invest in the infrastructure that helps nature. “Let’s use some of those billions of dollars targeted for rail and road to build wildlife over- and underpasses and sheath public buildings in bird-safe glass. Let’s plan for frog fences and tunnels that already work to stop the roadkill slaughter where amorous amphibians remind the world what springtime is for.”

A new study shows that compensation for oil-company executives creates incentives not to shift to renewables but to produce more hydrocarbons. “We show that executives have personal ownership of tens or hundreds of thousands of shares, which creates an unacknowledged personal desire to explore, extract and sell fossil fuels,” Richard Heede, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian. “That carbon mindset needs to be revised by realigning compensation towards success in lowering absolute emissions.”


New Zealand becomes the first country to force its banks to reveal the impact that their loans will have on the climate crisis. Data for Progress polling shows that large majorities of Americans support such plans, too. And Pope Francis, in a letter to financiers about both the pandemic and “ecological debt,” reminds them that, “as experts in finance and economics, you know well that trust, born of the interconnectedness between people, is the cornerstone of all relationships, including financial relationships. Those relationships can only be built up through the development of a ‘culture of encounter’ in which every voice can be heard and all can thrive, finding points of contact, building bridges, and envisioning long-term inclusive projects.”

The Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi and a five-person team spent two weeks creating a large-scale world map out of fifty thousand green-tipped matchsticks for the April 26th cover of Time magazine—and then set portions of the map on fire to illustrate the conflagrations that scorched much of the planet last year. They focussed on the highest-profile blazes, in places such as Australia and California, but they could have picked even more troubled areas. Nepal, for instance, recorded twenty-seven hundred wildfires last winter, which was not surprising, since rainfall for the period was down seventy-five per cent.

VanMoof, an electric-bike company, reports that “protected bike lanes cost $20,000-100,000 per mile to build, versus $1 million for car lanes. Maintaining bike lanes is also much cheaper than car lanes. For example, the City of Portland calculated in 2013 that the city’s entire bicycle network, consisting of over 300 miles of bikeways would cost $60 million to replace (2008 dollars), whereas the same investment would yield just one mile of a four-lane urban freeway.”

Harold Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, has been warning for decades that we face a greater sea-level rise than most people understand. Writing in The Nation, he makes the case with renewed urgency. “The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected in 2017 that global mean sea level could rise five to 8.2 feet by 2100. Four years later, it’s clear that eight feet is in fact a moderate projection. And regional influences—subsidence, changing ocean currents, and redistribution of Earth’s mass as ice melts—will cause some local sea level rise to be 20 to 70 percent higher than the global average.” Meanwhile, for Indian Country Today, Richard Arlin Walker provides rich coverage of indigenous communities that have always been tied to the ocean, but now must deal with those rapidly rising tides.

The British are weighing the licensing of a new coal mine in Cumbria. For a remarkable visual rendering of what the pile of coal it would produce over fifty years would look like, check out this short animation.

Car racing: California was in the lead, with a ban on selling new internal-combustion cars set for 2035, but now Washington has lapped the Golden State, with a proposed 2030 deadline. (Of course, in the international division, Norway is going for 2025.)

Warming Up

Wendell Berry is one of America’s great voices. In this video, his daughter Mary, the director of the Berry Center, which advocates for small farmers and regional economies, reads from one of his most interesting essays, “Solving for Pattern.” Happy Earth Day!

Global Financing To End the Pandemic

A new allocation of up to $650 billion worth of the IMF’s reserve asset, special drawing rights, would ensure that governments have the means to combat the coronavirus pandemic and start on the path of investment-led recovery.

We must seize this critical opportunity to cooperate effectively for the sake of humanity.

This week’s spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank offer a historic chance for financial cooperation. The major economies, including the United States, the European Union, China, and other G20 countries, have already signaled their support for a new allocation of $650 billion worth of the IMF’s reserve asset, special drawing rights (SDRs), to ensure that governments in low-income and middle-income countries have the means to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and start on the path of investment-led recovery. With leadership, boldness, and creativity, this global financial cooperation can help to end the pandemic.

Mass immunization is key. Less than a year after SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was first identified and sequenced, financial backing by governments – including the US, United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, and India – enabled several companies to roll out safe and effective vaccines. Rich countries that quickly negotiated favorable deals with vaccine makers have received most of the doses so far. But ending the pandemic requires that all countries achieve comprehensive vaccine coverage as soon as possible. In practical terms, the target should be no later than the end of 2022.

Such an unprecedented global undertaking requires strong cooperation, including financial support. Yet the urgency should be clear to all. As long as COVID-19 persists at high rates of transmission anywhere in the world, the pandemic will continue to disrupt global production, trade, and travel, and will also give rise to viral mutations that threaten to undermine previously acquired immunity from past infections and vaccinations. Still worse, on the current trajectory, COVID-19 could well become endemic in many regions of the world, imposing high health and economic costs for years to come. As US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen emphasized this week, all countries, therefore, share a strong interest in ending the pandemic everywhere.

The world’s governments established the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), which includes the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, the vaccine pillar of ACT-A, to ensure universal control of SARS-CoV-2. But while ACT-A and COVAX have established global plans for vaccines, tests, and treatments, the plans need urgently to be strengthened for two closely related reasons.

First, the operational target currently used by COVAX – a minimum of 27% of all eligible countries’ population immunized by the end of this year – must be raised to vaccination of all adults by the end of 2022. This is necessary to end the pandemic and to reduce the chances of new mutations.

Second, planning until the end of 2022 is urgently needed, given the lead times for scaling up the production and supply chains of vaccines and other crucial commodities. Yet ACT-A and COVAX remain underfunded even for 2021: the $11 billion governments have allocated to date leaves a financing gap of $22 billion for this year – a shortfall that has so far delayed necessary planning through the end of 2022. In the meantime, the current vaccine shortfall is leading countries to scramble to jump the queue, including by paying premium prices. This underscores the urgent need to ensure that all countries, including the poorest, can achieve comprehensive vaccine coverage in a fair and timely manner.

The additional sums needed to ensure universal vaccine coverage by the end of 2022, and other COVID-19 supplies, are modest – perhaps $50 billion for ACT-A. That is a negligible amount relative to the enormous global benefits of ending the pandemic and the massive pandemic-related spending by governments of high-income countries around the world. The US government alone has spent roughly $5 trillion in emergency outlays between March 2020 and March 2021.

To do its job, ACT-A (including COVAX) needs front-loaded funding to cover vaccine needs through 2022. Given that scaling up the production of vaccines (and some other commodities) requires a lead time of 6-12 months, the $50 billion should be guaranteed within the coming weeks, so that ACT-A and COVAX can work with manufacturers to ensure the necessary supplies. The IMF’s allocation of new SDRs offers a unique – and perhaps the only – opportunity to get this funding in hand.

When the new SDRs are issued, around $20 billion of new reserves will go directly to the poorest countries. In addition, around $100 billion or more that is allocated to rich countries will be recycled to the IMF to be used for long-term, low-interest loans. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has been working closely and creatively with G20 governments to design this novel, promising approach. One excellent idea is to use the SDRs to bolster the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust (PRGT), the Fund’s financing window for poor countries.

There is an important precedent here. In 2015, the IMF created a Catastrophe and Containment Relief Fund to help provide emergency Ebola-control financing to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This time, the PRGT financing could be made conditional on its use for ACT-A and COVAX-related procurements and for other COVID-19 control measures that the borrowing government documents to the IMF (such as reimbursements for COVID-19 vaccines that have been contracted by the member state outside COVAX).

ACT-A is now preparing estimates of the financing that the world’s 92 low- and middle-income countries eligible for COVAX support will need for vaccines, testing, therapeutics, and other supplies until the end of 2022. Based on the estimated financing needs, an ACT-A financial plan can be established for each country, to be supported by the SDRs and the expanded PRGT funds.

In the next few weeks, a rational plan to finance all countries’ COVID-19 balance-of-payments needs until the end of 2022 should emerge. The IMF was created to handle such a balance-of-payments emergency. Access to IMF financing will protect the well-being and macroeconomic stability of individual countries and the world as a whole. We must seize this critical opportunity for the United Nations, the IMF, and key governments – including the US, China, Russia, the EU, Japan, the UK, and others – to cooperate effectively for the sake of humanity.