Month: April 2022

Putin’s War Shows Autocracies And Fossil Fuels Go Hand In Hand

Democracies are making more progress than autocracies when it comes to climate action. But divestment campaigns can put pressure on the most recalcitrant of political leaders

At first glance, last autumn’s Glasgow climate summit looked a lot like its 25 predecessors. It had:

  • A conference hall the size of an aircraft carrier stuffed with displays from problematic parties (the Saudis, for example, with a giant pavilion saluting their efforts at promoting a “circular carbon economy agenda”).
  • Squadrons of delegates rushing constantly to mysterious sessions (“Showcasing achievements of TBTTP and Protected Areas Initiative of GoP”) while actual negotiations took place in a few back rooms.
  • Earnest protesters with excellent signs (“The wrong Amazon is burning”).

But as I wandered the halls and the streets outside, it struck me again and again that a good deal had changed since the last big climate confab in Paris in 2015 – and not just because carbon levels and the temperature had risen ever higher.

The biggest shift was in the political climate. Over those few years the world seemed to have swerved sharply away from democracy and toward autocracy – and in the process dramatically limited our ability to fight the climate crisis. Oligarchs of many kinds had grabbed power and were using it to uphold the status quo; there was a Potemkin quality to the whole gathering, as if everyone was reciting a script that no longer reflected the actual politics of the planet.

Now that we’ve watched Russia launch an oil-fired invasion of Ukraine, it’s a little easier to see this trend in high relief – but Putin is far from the only case. Consider the examples.

Brazil, in 2015 at Paris, had been led by Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ party, which had for the most part worked to limit deforestation in the Amazon. In some ways the country could claim to have done more than any other on climate damage, simply by slowing the cutting. But in 2021 Jair Bolsonaro was in charge, at the head of a government that empowered every big-time cattle rancher and mahogany poacher in the country. If people cared about the climate, he said, they could eat less and “poop every other day”. And if they cared about democracy, they could … go to jail. “Only God can take me from the presidency,” he explained ahead of this year’s elections.

Or India, which may turn out to be the most pivotal nation given the projected increases in its energy use – and which had refused its equivalent of Greta Thunberg even a visa to attend the meeting. (At least Disha Ravi was no longer in jail).

Or Russia (about which more in a minute) or China – a decade ago we could still, albeit with some hazard and some care, hold climate protests and demonstrations in Beijing. Don’t try that now.

Or, of course, the US, whose deep democratic deficits have long haunted climate negotiations. The reason we have a system of voluntary pledges, not a binding global agreement, is that the world finally figured out there would never be 66 votes in the US Senate for a real treaty.

Joe Biden had expected to arrive at the talks with the Build Back Better bill in his back pocket, slap it down on the table, and start a bidding war with the Chinese – but the other Joe, Manchin of West Virginia, the biggest single recipient of fossil fuel cash in DC, made sure that didn’t happen. Instead Biden showed up empty-handed and the talks fizzled.

And so we were left contemplating a world whose people badly want action on climate change, but whose systems aren’t delivering it. In 2021 the UN Development Programme conducted a remarkable poll, across the planet – they questioned people through video-game networks to reach humans less likely to answer traditional surveys. Even amid the Covid pandemic, 64% of them described climate change as a “global emergency”, and that by decisive margins they wanted “broad climate policies beyond the current state of play”. As the UNDP director, Achim Steiner, summarized, “the results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level”.

The irony is that some environmentalists have occasionally yearned for less democracy, not more. Surely if we just had strongmen in power everywhere they could just make the hard decisions and put us on the right path – we wouldn’t have to mess with the constant vagaries of elections and lobbying and influence.

But this is wrong for at least one moral reason – strongmen capable of acting instantly on the climate crisis are also capable of acting instantly on any number of other things, as the people of Xinjiang and Tibet would testify were they allowed to talk. It’s also wrong for a number of practical ones.

Those practical problems begin with the fact that autocrats have their own vested interests to please – Modi campaigned for his role atop the world’s largest democracy on the corporate jet of Adani, the largest coal company in the subcontinent. Don’t assume for a minute that there’s not a fossil fuel lobby in China; right now it’s busy telling Xi that economic growth depends on more coal.

And beyond that, autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. The crucial thing about oil and gas is that it is concentrated in a few spots around the world, and hence the people who live on top of or otherwise control those spots end up with huge amounts of unwarranted and unaccountable power.

Boris Johnson was just off in Saudi Arabia trying to round up some hydrocarbons – the day after the king beheaded 81 folks he didn’t like. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to the Saudi royal family if they did not possess oil? No. Nor would the Koch brothers have been able to dominate American politics on the basis of their ideas –when David Koch ran for the White House on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 he got almost no votes. So he and his brother Charles decided to use their winnings as America’s largest oil and gas barons to buy the GOP, and the rest is (dysfunctional) political history.

The most striking example of this phenomenon, it hardly need be said, is Vladimir Putin, a man whose power rests almost entirely on the production of stuff that you can burn. If I wandered through my house, it would be no problem to find electronics from China, textiles from India, all manner of goods from the EU – but there’s nothing anywhere that would say “made in Russia”. Sixty per cent of the export earnings that equipped his army came from oil and gas, and all the political clout that has cowed western Europe for decades came from his fingers on the gas spigot. He and his hideous war are the product of fossil fuel, and his fossil fuel interests have done much to corrupt the rest of the world.

It’s worth remembering that Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, wears the Order of Friendship, personally pinned on his lapel by Putin in thanks for the vast investments Tillerson’s firm (that would be Exxon) had made in the Arctic – a region opened to their exploitation by the fact that it had, um, melted. And these guys stick together: it’s entirely unsurprising that when Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and Amazon quit Russia last month, Koch Industries announced that it was staying put. The family business began, after all, by building refineries for Stalin.

Another way of saying this is that hydrocarbons by their nature tend towards the support of despotism – they’re highly dense in energy and hence very valuable; geography and geology means they can be controlled with relative ease. There’s one pipeline, one oil terminal.

Whereas sun and wind are, in these terms, much closer to democratic: they’re available everywhere, diffuse instead of concentrated. I can’t have an oilwell in my backyard because, as with almost all backyards, there is no oil there. Even if there was an oilwell, I would have to sell what I pumped to some refiner, and since I’m American, that would likely be a Koch enterprise. But I can (and do) have a solar panel on my roof; my wife and I rule our own tiny oligarchy, insulated from the market forces the Putins and the Kochs can unleash and exploit. The cost of energy delivered by the sun has not risen this year, and it will not rise next year.

As a general rule of thumb, those territories with the healthiest, least-captive-to-vested-interest democracies are making the most progress on climate change. Look around the world at Iceland or Costa Rica, around Europe at Finland or Spain, around the US at California or New York. So part of the job for climate campaigners is to work for functioning democratic states, where people’s demands for a working future will be prioritized over vested interest, ideology and personal fiefdoms.

But given the time constraints that physics impose – the need for rapid action everywhere – that can’t be the whole strategy. In fact, activists have arguably been a little too focused on politics as a source of change, and paid not quite enough attention to the other power center in our civilization: money.

If we could somehow persuade or force the world’s financial giants to change, that would yield quick progress as well. Maybe quicker, since speed is more a hallmark of stock exchanges than parliaments.

And here the news is a little better. Take my country as an example. Political power has come to rest in the reddest, most corrupt parts of America. The senators representing a relative handful of people in sparsely populated western states are able to tie up our political life, and those senators are almost all on the payroll of big oil. But money has collected in the blue parts of the country – Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economy.

That’s one reason some of us have worked so hard on campaigns like fossil fuel divestment – we won big victories with New York’s pension funds and with California’s vast university system, and so were able to put real pressure on big oil. Now we’re doing the same with the huge banks that are the industry’s financial lifeline. We’re well aware that we may never win over Montana or Mississippi, so we better have some solutions that don’t depend on doing so.

The same thing’s true globally. We may not be able to advocate in Beijing or Moscow or, increasingly, in Delhi. So, at least for these purposes, it’s useful that the biggest pots of money remain in Manhattan, in London, in Frankfurt, in Tokyo. These are places we still can make some noise.

And they are places where there’s some real chance of that noise being heard. Governments tend to favor people who’ve already made their fortune, industries that are already ascendant: that’s who comes with blocs of employees who vote, and that’s who can afford the bribes. But investors are all about who’s going to make money next. That’s why Tesla is worth far more than General Motors in the stock market, if not in the halls of Congress.

Moreover, if we can persuade the world of money to act, it’s capable of doing so quickly. Should, say, Chase Bank, currently the biggest lender on earth to fossil fuel, announce this year that it was quickly phasing out that support, the news would ripple out across stock markets in the matter of hours. That’s why some of us have felt it worthwhile to mount increasingly larger campaigns against these financial institutions, and to head off to jail from their lobbies.

The world of money is at least as unbalanced and unfair as the world of political power – but in ways that may make it a little easier for climate advocates to make progress.

Putin’s grotesque war might be where some of these strands come together. It highlights the ways that fossil fuel builds autocracy, and the power that control of scarce supplies gives to autocrats. It’s also shown us the power of financial systems to put pressure on the most recalcitrant political leaders: Russia is being systematically and effectively punished by bankers and corporations, though as my Ukrainian colleague Svitlana Romanko and I pointed out recently, they could be doing far more. The shock of the war may also be strengthening the resolve and unity of the world’s remaining democracies and perhaps – one can hope – diminishing the attraction of would-be despots like Donald Trump.

But we’ve got years, not decades, to get the climate crisis under some kind of control. We won’t get more moments like this. The brave people of Ukraine may be fighting for more than they can know.

Putin’s War Gives America A Chance To Get Serious About Refugees

These past brutal weeks have become only more unbearable as pictures emerge of the devastation that Russia has left behind in the towns around Kyiv. Still, shock events on this scale do present an opportunity to unstick locked-in attitudes and policies, which is something we badly need, particularly because we face an even larger and more existential challenge than the rise of Putin-style despotism: the climate crisis, and, with it, the almost unimaginable refugee challenge that is coming our way as the planet warms. There’s a chance that the war in Ukraine could be instrumental in helping to renew our resolve to take on both.

So far, the most widely noted area of overlap between the Ukrainian tragedy and global warming has had to do with energy. The fact that Russia’s war machine is funded by fossil fuel, and that Putin uses control of gas supplies to intimidate Western Europe, has begun to shake up energy policy: Germany has moved up its target date for a conversion to clean energy, for instance. And, if the Biden Administration has caved to Big Oil’s insistence on increasing the supply of hydrocarbons, at least that stance is being more urgently and broadly questioned. Last week, in the Times, Thomas Friedman insisted that, instead of doubling down on fossil fuels, we should “double the pace of our transition” off them, because “nothing would threaten Putin more than that,” and because the temperature in the Antarctic last month was seventy degrees above normal. “Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore,” he wrote, a point underlined by today’s release of a dire and comprehensive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But, even if we seize this moment to dramatically accelerate the transition to solar and wind power—even if we somehow manage to meet the scientific mandate to cut emissions in half by 2030—we’ll still face the huge and unavoidable consequences of the warming that we’ve already unleashed. And chief among these is the fact that we’re steadily shrinking the area of the planet that humans can inhabit, and, in the process, creating refugees and migrants in what will almost certainly turn out to be unprecedented numbers: the United Nations estimates that we could see two billion climate migrants before the century is out. So the fact that Putin has created four million refugees in a matter of weeks is a test of our systems.

Those systems are straining. Volunteers have been showing up at European train stations offering spare rooms to fleeing Ukrainians, but there’s probably a limit to that kind of generosity. A resident of Vienna named Tanja Maier provides a daily account on Twitter of her efforts to help people arriving in that city, and recently she wrote that some of them are heading back home, “as the disenchantment sets in and the reality of the refugee experience in Europe without funds takes its toll. So much is luck and money. You need both.” The sheer scale of the exodus is overwhelming: Moldova, for instance, has seen four hundred thousand people come across its border; most have moved on to other countries, such as Romania, but a hundred thousand have been absorbed there—in a country of 2.6 million people.

The United States is a country of three hundred and thirty million people, with a per-capita income more than four times that of Moldova, which makes the Biden Administration’s offer, issued last month, to take in a hundred thousand Ukrainians, seem slightly less generous. Nevertheless, Biden’s move is a politically brave one, considering how, in recent elections, Republicans have demagogued anything to do with immigration. He’s got away with it so far, though—partly because the daily pictures from Ukraine make it clear just how necessary it is, and partly because, as refugees from other war-torn territories have pointed out, Ukrainians are white. As an Afghan refugee in an Italian camp told a reporter, “People who used to give spare clothes and food to us are now giving them to Ukrainians.”

Even Biden’s offer, however, demonstrates how broken our immigration and refugee systems are: a group of Ukrainian refugees told the Washington Post that visits to U.S. embassies in European capitals had proved useless. “They told us, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any options for you yet,’ ” one man said. So they flew to Mexico City and on to Tijuana, where some fifteen hundred are now camped a few yards from the U.S. border. The closest thing to a register of the refugees is a numbered list that volunteers keep on a yellow legal pad, the Post reported. “No. 612 was Gleb Prochukhan, 15, the No. 3-ranked junior table tennis player in Kharkiv, whose English was good enough to translate for some of the foreign volunteers who had descended on Tijuana with blankets and protein bars and tacos.”

Of course, the number of Ukrainian refugees on the border is nothing compared with the number of refugees from South and Central America, who have been stuck at the border for years, ever since the Trump Administration, under the guise of covid protection, stopped taking their applications. The Biden Administration may lift that policy next month, but it hasn’t said how many people it will admit, or under what circumstances. On Friday, the Post reported, “A family of Honduran asylum seekers, turned away at the border, passed by the Ukrainian encampment to ask for small change.”

Hondurans and their Central American neighbors, in fact, have as strong a claim to shelter here as Ukrainians do. By 2019, Honduras was in the fifth year of a devastating drought, linked to climate change, that, in some parts of the country, cut corn yields by more than seventy per cent. An internal report from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, obtained by NBC News, found that a crop shortage was the “overwhelming factor driving record-setting migration” from Guatemala. The report describes that shortage as leaving citizens “in extreme poverty and starving.” Then, in 2020—at the end of the most active hurricane season ever recorded in the Atlantic—within two weeks, two huge storms crashed into the region, doing damage estimated at forty per cent of Honduras’s G.D.P. By contrast, the costliest U.S. natural disaster ever, Hurricane Katrina, which displaced a million or more Americans, dented the nation’s economy by only one per cent of its G.D.P. (And Hondurans did next to nothing to cause the climate crisis that drove that drought and those storms—the average Honduran emits one-fifteenth as much carbon dioxide as the average American.)

We should obviously care about Ukrainian suffering, but we should also care about the suffering of Central Americans, and of others—such as Somalians, who have been enduring an escalating drought. As Reuters reported last month, “It has not rained on Habiba Maow Iman’s farm in southern Somalia for two years. Her animals are dead; her crops failed. . . . The 61-year-old is one of tens of thousands seeking aid on the outskirts” of a refugee camp that is now in the midst of a measles epidemic. Somalia’s per-capita carbon emissions are about 0.3 per cent of America’s.

Which brings us back to the present moment, and the opportunity that President Biden now has to dramatically shift the tenor of this debate in favor of making immigration and asylum easier. To do so, he’ll need to argue on practicalities as well as on principles. Most Americans agree that immigrants are hardworking and improve the country. Meanwhile, unemployment is approaching record lows, and many people sense that we need more bodies in the workforce. To look at the health-care industry, for example, if you’re a rural American, you know that we’re running desperately short of doctors; if you’re an aging American, you know that there’s already a dire shortage of home health-care workers, which is going to get worse in the years ahead. And so on. America’s population is barely growing now; as Derek Thompson pointed out in The Atlantic last month, 2021 saw the slowest growth in the nation’s history, in part because so many people died of covid, in part because fewer people had babies, and—in the largest part—because immigration has collapsed, from more than a million people annually, before Donald Trump entered office, to less than a quarter of a million last year.

Shifting to a more welcoming set of immigration policies will require figuring out systems to take migrants in and resettle them, but lots of people are ready to assist. Krish Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (I serve on the advisory board), told NPR that, during the past year, a hundred thousand Americans have volunteered to help, as they watched first Afghans and then Ukrainians be forced from their homes. Refugees, she said, “need everything from organizations like ours picking them up at the airport, you know, helping them find affordable housing—obviously not an easy thing to do at this moment given the housing crisis. It’s about helping them find new jobs, integrate into their communities, navigate public transportation… taking them to doctor’s appointments, helping them enroll kids in public school.”

This task won’t be easy, not logistically and not politically, but every tenth-of-a-degree rise in temperature shrinks the habitable world by some fraction, forcing more people from their homes. Just as Putin’s war gives Biden a new opportunity to make the case for renewable energy, so it gives him an opening to address this intractable problem. In both cases, it may be a last chance before climate change overtakes us.

Amazon Workers’ Historic Win And Corporate America’s Ongoing Greed

If it can’t fight off unions directly, it will do so indirectly by blaming inflation on wage increases, and then cheer on the Fed as it slows the economy just enough to eliminate American workers’ new bargaining clout.

On Friday, Amazon—America’s wealthiest, most powerful, and fiercest anti-union corporation, with the second-largest workforce in the nation (union-busting Walmart being the largest), lost out to a group of warehouse workers in New York who voted to form a union.

If anyone had any doubts about Amazon’s determination to prevent this from ever happening, its scorched-earth anti-union campaign last fall in its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse should have put those doubts to rest.

In New York, Amazon used every tool it had used in Alabama. Many of them are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act but Amazon couldn’t care less. It’s rich enough to pay any fine or bear any public relations hit.

The company has repeatedly fired workers who speak out about unsafe working conditions or who even suggest that workers need a voice.

As its corporate coffers bulge with profits—and its founder and executive chairman practices conspicuous consumption on the scale not seen since the robber barons of the late 19th century—Amazon has become the poster child for 21st-century corporate capitalism run amok.

Much of the credit for Friday’s victory over Amazon goes to Christian Smalls, whom Amazon fired in the spring of 2020 for speaking out about the firm’s failure to protect its warehouse workers from COVID. Smalls refused to back down. He went back and organized a union, with extraordinary skill and tenacity.

Smalls had something else working in his favor, which brings me to Friday’s superb jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report showed that the economy continues to roar back to life from the COVID recession.

With consumer demand soaring, employers are desperate to hire. This has given American workers more bargaining clout than they’ve had in decades. Wages have climbed 5.6 percent over the past year.

The acute demand for workers has bolstered the courage of workers to demand better pay and working conditions from even the most virulently anti-union corporations in America, such as Amazon and Starbucks.

Is this something to worry about? Not at all. American workers haven’t had much of a raise in over four decades. Most of the economy’s gains have gone to the top.

Besides, inflation is running so high that even the 5.6 percent wage gain over the past year is minimal in terms of real purchasing power.

But corporate America believes these wage gains are contributing to inflation. As the New York Times solemnly reported, the wage gains “could heat up price increases.“

This is pure rubbish. But unfortunately, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Jerome Powell, believes it. He worries that “the labor market is extremely tight,”and to “an unhealthy level.

As a result, the Fed is on the way to raising interest rates repeatedly in order to slow the economy and reduce the bargaining leverage of American workers.

Pause here to consider this: The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that corporate profits are at a 70-year high. You read that right. Not since 1952 have corporations done as well as they are now doing.

Across the board, American corporations are flush with cash. Although they are paying higher costs (including higher wages), they’ve still managed to increase their profits. How? They have enough pricing power to pass on those higher costs to consumers, and even add some more for themselves.

When American corporations are overflowing with money like this, why should anyone think that wage gains will heat up price increases, as the Times reports? In a healthy economy, corporations would not be passing on higher costs—including higher wages—to their consumers. They’d be paying the higher wages out of their profits.

But that’s not happening. Corporations are using their record profits to buy back enormous amounts of their own stock to keep their share prices high, instead.

The labor market isn’t “unhealthily” tight, as Jerome Powell asserts; corporations are unhealthily fat. Workers don’t have too much power; corporations do.

The extraordinary win of the workers of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse is cause for celebration. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of a renewal of worker power in America.

Yet the reality is that corporate America doesn’t want to give up any of its record profits to its workers. If it can’t fight off unions directly, it will do so indirectly by blaming inflation on wage increases, and then cheer on the Fed as it slows the economy just enough to eliminate American workers’ new bargaining clout.

Anti-Arab Bias And Ignorance Of European History

The double standards in political commentary regarding the war in Ukraine have been widely discussed, from the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees (while Arab refugees face closed doors), to the support of Ukrainians’ right to self-determination and resistance to invasion (while these are denied to Palestinians), to the US and Europeans decrying the illegality of invading a sovereign nation (while ignoring our own histories).

One additional form of bigotry in some comparisons of Ukraine and the Arab World is particularly galling and requires a response.

An example: A prominent New York Times columnist, comparing the world’s response to Russia’s preparation to invade Ukraine with its response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, wrote:

“Kuwait is a small authoritarian emirate, representing few grand political ideals, in a war-torn region. Ukraine is a democracy of more than 40 million people, on what was a largely peaceful continent home to major democracies.”

So much is objectionable in these two sentences; most egregious is the writer’s underlying thinking, i.e., Ukrainians are more deserving of defence than Kuwaitis. Looking more closely reveals the bias (and ignorance of history) that led to this observation.

We can dismiss the comparative size of the two countries. I feel certain the writer wouldn’t claim that Egypt, because of its size, is more worthy of defence than Israel.

As for their forms of government, the writer clearly doesn’t understand that Kuwait, while a traditional society, has a vibrant political culture, with highly competitive parliamentary elections. The parliament has a long history of challenging government ministers, frequently clashing on matters of policy and accountability. While Ukraine does have a democratically elected executive, its governance has not been without turbulence, unsavory characters, and charges of corruption. The form of government can’t determine a nation’s worthiness to exist or a people’s right to self-determination.

The Times’ columnist appears to view Ukraine as more deserving of support than Kuwait because Ukraine comes from “largely peaceful Europe” while Kuwait is located in the “war-torn” Arab World, in other words, invasions and violence are expected from Arabs, but not Europeans. These few words demonstrate a willful ignorance of history and a healthy dose of bigotry.

“Largely peaceful?” In the last century, Europeans fought two bloody World Wars in which more than 60,000,000 people were killed. First, millions of young men were sacrificed as pawns in a competition between European powers. Then, the birth of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain gave way to an even more deadly war including an effort to exterminate the Jewish people, mass murders of Poles, Russians, Gypsies and others, and cruel and indiscriminate mass bombings of cities (by both sides). At war’s end, Europe was divided with the establishment and expansion of the Soviet Union which repressed and murdered millions as it consolidated control and brutally suppressed rebellion. The end of communist rule brought more violence in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, and the rise of far-right movements across Europe.

Beyond these murderous conflicts, European powers were fighting to expand colonial holdings or, by mid-century, repressing colonies that had independence movements. Millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians died seeking to throw off European colonisers who had conquered their lands, exploited their treasures, and denied them their rights.

But the legacy of “largely peaceful” Europe did not end there. European colonial powers then drew artificial lines dividing peoples and creating new states to serve their own interests. They pitted religious, tribal, or ethnic groups against one another, or gave lucrative concessions to compliant partners, who prospered at the expense of their compatriots. In these regions European powers left a legacy of division and seeds of future conflict.

Europe has not been “largely peaceful”, and deserves significant blame for the Arab World being “war torn”.

My intention is not to dump on Europe nor totally absolve Arabs from responsibility for their current situation, nor pick on one NYT writer. Rather, my point is that the invasion of Ukraine isn’t a solitary blot on an otherwise pure European landscape. Russia should be condemned for its invasion and Ukrainians deserve their freedom, not because they are Europeans from a “largely peaceful” continent, but because invasion and occupation by bullies are wrong wherever they occur and whoever they are.