Month: November 2023

The Next Power Plant Is On The Roof And In The Basement

A Department of Energy report promotes a new system that could remake the energy grid.

On any given Monday in Vermont, Josh Castonguay, the vice-president of innovation at that state’s Green Mountain Power utility, told me, he studies the forecast for the days ahead, asking questions like “What’s it looking like from a temperature standpoint, a potential-of-load standpoint? Is there an extremely hot, humid stretch of a few days coming? A really cold February night?” If there is trouble ahead, Castonguay prepares, among other things, Vermont’s single largest power plant, which isn’t exactly a power plant at all—or, at least, not as we normally think of one. It’s an online network, organized by the utility, of forty-five hundred electric storage batteries (currently, most of them are Tesla Powerwalls), spread out across more than three thousand Vermont homes. The network also includes a broad array of residential rooftop solar panels, which produce the energy stored in those batteries, and smart water heaters and E.V. chargers. The people who have these assets aren’t off the grid; they’re Green Mountain Power customers who, for a discount on their bills, agree to plug their batteries (most of which are leased to own) and appliances into the utility’s network and let the company control the devices so that they use less power at critical moments. (If customers need to override the company’s commands, they can.) This means that Castonguay (or, really, his algorithms) can program storage batteries to be charged a hundred per cent before a storm hits. Or, if it’s going to be a hot day, he can preheat water heaters in many homes in the morning, so that in the afternoon, as the temperature rises, more power will be available to run air-conditioners. He can also precool some big buildings in the morning. “Then, if you think about it, the building itself is the battery,” he said, in the sense that it stores chilled air for later in the day. “We have about fifty megawatts” of this distributed power, Castonguay told me. “At the scale of Vermont, that’s a lot.” Utilities have always been able to dispatch supply, bringing power plants, which are often in idle mode, online as demand requires. Now they’re increasingly able to call up small, individual home power plants and dispatch demand as well, turning down thermostats or delaying car charging.

Green Mountain Power is at the forefront of this push; last month, it announced plans to install storage batteries for many of its customers—two hundred and seventy thousand homes and businesses, in total—in the next decade, pending regulatory approval. (Castonguay says it is testing a new home battery system, from FranklinWH—a company named for Ben Franklin, who actually coined the term “battery”—and that this apparatus seems to work as well as the Powerwall.) But other companies are starting to follow. Green Mountain Power’s former C.E.O., Mary Powell, left three years ago and soon took over Sunrun, which supplies rooftop solar panels and storage batteries for hundreds of thousands of homes nationwide, and serves as a third-party power aggregator for several utilities. “We’re sitting on more than 1.1 gigawatt-hours of installed storage capacities just with our customers now,” she told me recently, much of it in California, where the company is based. From August through October, as a series of heat waves pushed consumption up in that state, Pacific Gas and Electric was buying up to thirty megawatts of power through Sunrun every evening to keep peak demand down in its grid system. Sunrun’s customers who provided the energy got a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars. “We went from contract to operation in six months,” Powell said. “You simply could not get a resource of that size built and operationalized any other way in that time frame.” And, she added, “it’s not just that we can make a more reliable, resilient grid” by drawing on the scattered resources; “We can also make a much more affordable grid,” because being able to use residential power means not having to build big, new power plants to meet peak demand. Taking in that money saved, she added, “We can shave ten billion dollars a year off the price of the country’s power system.”

That figure comes from a report that the Department of Energy released in September on virtual power plants (V.P.P.s), the name the industry has settled on for these systems, though not without dissent: “There’s really nothing virtual about them,” Powell said. The report’s lead author, the D.O.E.’s portfolio manager Jennifer Downing, predicted that V.P.P.s could be handling twenty per cent of peak power demand across the country by 2030, at a cost forty to sixty per cent below that of the plants that would otherwise have to provide that power. As the number of E.V.s—which are basically large batteries attached to wheels, and so can be plugged into the system to provide power or extra storage—grows, that percentage could rise. Jigar Shah, the polymathic enthusiast running the department’s efforts to deploy the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money provided by the Inflation Reduction Act (I.R.A.), told me, “Today, our grid is used at about forty per cent of capacity. If we could fluctuate demand as we now do supply, we could get a lot more out of it.” In the process, he added, customers could save twenty per cent on their power bills.

It’s worth thinking for a moment about when America’s electric system first came online. It began with Thomas Edison’s urban experiments in the late nineteenth century and expanded rapidly across the country in the early to mid-twentieth century. That’s roughly the same period that America’s broadcast communications system grew from a few local trials in radio to continent-spanning broadcast networks. Timing isn’t the only similarity: they both also ran one way. A few giant utilities (such as Consolidated Edison) produced electricity at mammoth power stations, and ran the power down lines to homes and businesses, just as a few broadcast giants (CBS, NBC, and ABC) produced content at a handful of centralized locations, and transmitted it over the airwaves into America’s living rooms.

Then, with the advent of the Internet, every person became a potential content producer and was connected laterally to everyone else. Now the electric grid is belatedly starting to follow that model, with millions of homes and businesses becoming energy suppliers and storage nodes. All this is coming at a crucial moment, as the demand for electricity is expected to soar. Fighting climate change means electrifying almost everything and providing the electricity required as cleanly as possible; making household batteries and appliances part of the system should help ease what’s likely to be one of the largest industrial transitions in U.S. history. Electric utilities are often regarded as the stodgiest of businesses, because their profit is guaranteed and also capped (public-utility commissions in each state set rates based on the costs to utilities, plus some percentage). And the bottom-line imperative from the beginning of the industry has been reliability. That has led to a culture of conservatism. “Largely, you still have a cultural system in grid operators where anything new is looked at with skepticism,” Powell said, “with ‘Well, take ten years to prove it to me.’ ” It’s also clear that networked clean energy that’s produced in private homes and businesses could cut into the companies’ profits. A consultant for Arizona Public Service, that state’s main utility, confirmed to regulators at a state hearing in September that the increasing growth of rooftop solar panels “may supplant investments that the utility may otherwise have been able to make, and earn a return on, for the benefit of their shareholders.”

But recent developments are starting to change that equation, most of them stemming in some way from the convulsive effects of climate change. Since power supply produces about a third of the country’s greenhouse gases, most jurisdictions have enacted laws that call on utilities to generate less of their power from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, mandates from states and the federal government designed to cut emissions from the transportation and industrial sectors are pressuring utilities to provide more power for, say, electric Ford F-150 Lightning pickups and the electric-arc steel furnaces that are starting to replace fossil-powered foundries. The electrical grid needs to be modernized and expanded, and the cost of that means that electricity rates are going up fast—so fast that twenty million American households, about one in six, are currently behind on their utility bills, the highest number on record. Last year, in Maine, the state’s two private utilities cut off ten per cent of their customers for nonpayment, which helped spark a referendum campaign to take those companies public. (The Maine chapter of Third Act, which I helped organize, worked to pass the initiative on the ballot earlier this month; the utilities outspent the advocates thirty-five to one, and defeated that effort.)

Unprecedented heat waves are also straining systems—Texas was on the edge of rolling blackouts much of last summer and, in August, during one peak usage period, more than eleven gigawatts of gas and nuclear power were unexpectedly knocked offline. “Luckily for Texans,” Powell wrote, “renewable energy resources such as solar and storage delivered energy when it was needed most. This story, in which solar and storage prevent grid failure, will become more common in the coming years.” In Vermont, ever-stronger storms are pushing the utilities: Green Mountain Power wants all its customers to have a battery because it spent fifty-five million dollars on storm recovery this year, up from an average of less than ten million from 2015 to 2022. “Our three worst storms were this year,” Castonguay said.

“Based on what I’ve seen with utility contracts this year, I think we’ve arrived” at a place where “utilities are coming to us,” Suleman Khan, the C.E.O. of Swell Energy, told me. Like Sunrun, his company is also based in California, and it also aggregates household power and storage, and sells the energy to utilities as dispatchable power. It built a V.P.P. in Oahu—Khan said that Hawaiian Electric asks Swell to dispatch power from household batteries when the grid needs it, which is about ten times a month. As a result, those customers now get a payment from Swell. “We will lease you a battery and solar panels, for, say, two hundred bucks a month.” Khan said. “And now we can pay you maybe fifty dollars a month for the ability to dispatch your power. It’s bringing down the cost of ownership, which is good for well-off people, but decisive for people who really care about the difference between a hundred and fifty and two hundred dollars a month.”

Utilities are now building their own big battery farms out near their big solar or wind installations, which is helpful—studies show that there aren’t enough rooftops in the U.S. to hold the solar panels needed to run a fossil-free power system. But power generators and batteries situated closer to the point of consumption are uniquely useful, Khan said. “One thing is transmission losses. If you can generate and store where you consume, you avoid the five- to ten-per-cent generation losses that come with running power down a long line. And, if you’re trying to cope with load growth on a particular circuit, where, say, a lot of new housing is going on, a compelling way to do that is to have batteries around on that circuit.”

But when utilities really engage they can dramatically speed up the pace at which households can supply more power. For companies like Swell and Sunrun, one of the biggest costs is customer acquisition. They have to buy ads, or hire people to cold-call potential clients, and it’s hard for consumers to separate a good offer from a bad—or even fraudulent—one. Some utilities are now actively helping the aggregators acquire customers. “Even in cases where regulations make that hard, at a minimum their endorsement really matters,” Khan told me.

And, as these partnerships expand, so do the opportunities for financing. Swell recently landed a hundred-and-twenty-million-dollar round of venture capital, in part, Khan said, because a lot of investors are more interested in financing V.P.P.s, which in essence are more like utilities—an asset class with a much longer history, and a more predictable payback—than they are like pure solar installers, which are more like a startup. The fact that the Department of Energy, with money from the I.R.A., offers loan guarantees to these companies adds another layer of comfort for investors, Khan said. “It’s a strong signal to the marketplace,” he added. Strong enough that “I think over the next thirty years every home will have a battery. I don’t know if every home will have solar—some have too much shade, or the wrong roof. But batteries are going to become an appliance, just like a dishwasher or a television.”

He predicts particularly rapid growth in the southeastern U.S., where traditionally low electric rates and obdurate utilities have slowed the home-solar industry. In recent months, Duke Energy, which once helped convince regulators that an environmental group that had installed some solar panels on the roof of a Black church and was selling it power below what the utility charged should not be allowed to do so, announced plans to enroll thirty-five hundred customers in a trial that would let the utility call on their batteries thirty-six times a year, in exchange for discounted rates. “Utilities have an opportunity to be the heroes of this story,” Shah, at the Department of Energy, told Solar Power World last month. “By supporting increased electrification, they’re enabling consumers’ home efficiency upgrades, enabling economic growth, reducing emissions from enterprises and more.”

Advocates say that a good example of this trend is Portland General Electric (P.G.E.), in Oregon, whose C.E.O., Maria Pope, was part of the D.O.E.’s advisory board as it was preparing the September report. In mid-August, the Oregonian reported, a three-day heat wave broke “daily, monthly, and decades-long records.” But it didn’t break the P.G.E. grid, in part because the company has a long-standing commitment to its own virtual power plant, with about two hundred megawatts’ worth of solar panels, batteries, and thermostats in customer’s houses that it can call on. P.G.E.’s software went to work precooling houses in the morning so that it could turn thermostats three degrees lower during the afternoon peak, and introducing the staggered charging of electric cars so that they could wait till the wee hours to refill their batteries, once the strain was off the system. All this is voluntary—customers sign up to participate, and if they need to override the thermostat they can. “But about twenty per cent of our customers are bought in,” John Farmer, the utility’s spokesperson, said. “We saw at least ninety-megawatt reductions in peak usage three days in a row.”

In fact, if utilities don’t move fast enough, they may find themselves not with new opportunities but with new competition. In October, in Santa Barbara, a team of local environmentalists announced plans for a thirty-megawatt V.P.P. that one of them, Leah C. Stokes, a key architect of many of the climate provisions in the I.R.A. and a professor of environmental politics at the University of California campus, called “a step towards having the community run one hundred percent on clean power 24/7.” She added, “Right now, Santa Barbara is at the end of a transmission line—they call it the ‘Goleta Load Pocket.’ And, hence, we’re highly vulnerable to natural disasters disrupting electricity access.” In 2017, an enormous wildfire almost cut the region’s connection, which depends on three transmission lines coming through a single hundred-and-forty-foot-wide corridor that traverses mountain and forest. So the goal is to create a system that runs mostly on locally generated solar power, and has the capability to isolate buildings “from the broader grid in the event of an emergency. Individual homes can already do this with solar and batteries,” Stokes told me. “But our vision is much bigger. We want to build a large project that can protect the community and supply power locally, especially during emergencies.”

Working with yet another aggregation startup—Scale Microgrids—the group has mapped warehouses and parking lots with fifty thousand square feet of potential solar exposure, and are aiming to invest a hundred million dollars in venture capital to build out a V.P.P. that will “serve as a model for cities around the world.” Stokes says that many of her neighbors want to “do bold things to act on climate” and that they also know they’re “on the front lines with drought, fires, and extreme rainfalls leading to mudslides.” That combination of utopian hopes and dystopian fears may boil the climate crisis down to its essentials—and the sum of those hopes and fears may look very much like a battery in the basement and a panel on the roof, magically connected to thousands of others.

Justice For The Palestinians And Security For Israel

There have been five wars in the last 15 years between Israel and Hamas. How do we end the current one and prevent a sixth from happening, sooner or later? How do we balance our desire to stop the fighting with the need to address the roots of the conflict? For 75 years, diplomats, well-intentioned Israelis and Palestinians and government leaders around the world have struggled to bring peace to this region. In that time an Egyptian president and an Israeli prime minister were assassinated by extremists for their efforts to end the violence.

And on and on it goes.

For those of us who want not only to bring this war to an end, but to avoid a future one, we must first be cleareyed about facts. On Oct. 7, Hamas, a terrorist organization, unleashed a barbaric attack against Israel, killing about 1,200 innocent men, women and children and taking more than 200 hostage. On a per-capita basis, if Israel had the same population as the United States, that attack would have been the equivalent of nearly 40,000 deaths, more than 10 times the fatalities that we suffered on 9/11.

Israel, in response, under the leadership of its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under indictment for corruption and whose cabinet includes outright racists, unleashed what amounts to total war against the Palestinian people. In Gaza, over 1.6 million Palestinians were forced out of their homes. Food, water, medical supplies and fuel were cut off. The United Nations estimates that 45 percent of the housing units in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. According to the Gaza health ministry, more than 12,000 Palestinians, about half of whom are children, have been killed and many more wounded. And the situation becomes more dire every day.

This is a humanitarian catastrophe that risks igniting a wider regional conflagration. We all want it to end as soon as possible. To make progress, however, we must grapple with the complexity of this situation that too many people on both sides want to wave away.

First, Hamas has made it clear, before and after Oct. 7, that its goal is perpetual warfare and the destruction of the state of Israel. Just last week a spokesman for Hamas told The New York Times: “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us.”

Second, Israel has done nothing in recent years to give hope for a peaceful settlement — maintaining the blockade of Gaza, deepening the daily humiliations of occupation in the West Bank, and largely ignoring the horrendous living conditions facing Palestinians.

Needless to say, I do not have all of the answers to this never-ending tragedy. But for those of us who believe in peace and justice, it is imperative that we do our best to provide Israelis and Palestinians with a thoughtful response that maps out a realistic path to addressing the reality we face today. Here are my thoughts as to the best way forward and how the United States can rally the world around a moral position that moves us toward peace in the region and justice for the oppressed Palestinian population.

To start, we must demand an immediate end to Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, which is causing an enormous number of civilian casualties and is in violation of international law. Israel is at war with Hamas, not innocent Palestinian men, women and children. Israel cannot bomb an entire neighborhood to take out one Hamas target. We don’t know if this campaign has been effective in degrading Hamas’s military capabilities. But we do know that a reported 70 percent of the casualties are women and children, and that 104 U.N. aid workers and 53 journalists have been killed. That’s not acceptable.

There must also be a significant, extended humanitarian pause so that badly needed aid — food, water, medicine and fuel — can get into Gaza and save lives. If Wednesday morning’s deal — in which 50 Israeli hostages are to be freed in exchange for a four-day pause in fighting — is honored, it is a promising first step that we can build upon, and hopefully work to extend the pause. Meanwhile, the United Nations must be given time to safely set up the distribution network needed to prevent thirst, starvation and disease, to build shelters and evacuate those who need critical care. This window will also allow for talks to free as many hostages as possible. This extended pause must not precede a resumption of indiscriminate bombing. Israel will continue to go after Hamas, but it must dramatically change its tactics to minimize civilian harm.

If long-suffering Palestinians are ever going to have a chance at self-determination and a decent standard of living, there must be no long-term Israeli re-occupation and blockade of Gaza. If Hamas is going to be removed from power, as it must be, and Palestinians given the opportunity for a better life, an Israeli occupation of Gaza would be absolutely counterproductive and would benefit Hamas. For the sake of regional peace and a brighter future for the Palestinian people, Gaza must have a chance to be free of Hamas. There can be no long-term Israeli occupation.

To achieve the political transformation that Gaza needs, new Palestinian leadership will be required as part of a wider political process. And for that transformation and peace process to take place, Israel must make certain political commitments that will allow for Palestinian leadership committed to peace to build support. They must guarantee displaced Palestinians the absolute right to return to their homes as Gaza rebuilds. People who have lived in poverty and despair for years cannot be made permanently homeless. Israel must also commit to end the killings of Palestinians in the West Bank and freeze settlements there as a first step toward permanently ending the occupation. Those steps will show that peace can deliver for the Palestinian people, hopefully giving the Palestinian Authority the legitimacy it needs to assume administrative control of Gaza, likely after an interim stabilization period under an international force.

Finally, if Palestinians are to have any hope for a decent future, there must be a commitment to broad peace talks to advance a two-state solution in the wake of this war. The United States, the international community and Israel’s neighbors must move aggressively toward that goal. This would include dramatically increased international support for the Palestinian people, including from wealthy Gulf States. It would also mean the promise of full recognition of Palestine pending the formation of a new democratically elected government committed to peace with Israel.

Let’s be clear: this is not going to happen on its own. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party was explicitly formed on the premise that “between the Sea and the Jordan [River] there will only be Israeli sovereignty,” and the current coalition agreement reinforces that goal. This is not just ideology. The Israeli government has systematically pursued this goal. The last year saw record Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, where more than 700,000 Israelis now live in areas that the United Nations and the United States agree are occupied territories. They have used state violence to back up this de facto annexation. Since Oct. 7, the United Nations reports that at least 208 Palestinians, including 53 children, have been killed by Israeli security forces and settlers. This cannot be allowed to continue.

Mr. Netanyahu has made clear where he stands on these critical issues. So should we. If asking nicely worked, we wouldn’t be in this position. The only way these necessary changes will happen is if the United States uses the substantial leverage we have with Israel. And we all know what that leverage is.

For many years, the United States has provided Israel substantial sums of money — with close to no strings attached. Currently, we provide $3.8 billion a year. President Biden has asked for $14.3 billion more on top of that sum and asked Congress to waive normal, already-limited oversight rules. The blank check approach must end. The United States must make clear that while we are friends of Israel, there are conditions to that friendship and that we cannot be complicit in actions that violate international law and our own sense of decency. That includes an end to indiscriminate bombing; a significant pause to bombing so that massive humanitarian assistance can come into the region; the right of displaced Gazans to return to their homes; no long-term Israeli occupation of Gaza; an end to settler violence in the West Bank and a freeze on settlement expansion; and a commitment to broad peace talks for a two-state solution in the wake of the war.

Over the years, people of good will around the world, including Israelis, have tried to address this conflict in a way that brings justice for Palestinians and security for Israel. I, and some other members of Congress, have tried to do what we could. Obviously, we did not do enough. Now we must recommit to this effort. The stakes are just too high to give up.

Environmental Sacrifice Zones Can Be Beacons Of Clean Energy Investment

Lower Richland County, South Carolina, is a place with a rich history. The region, which sits on wetlands and a floodplain forest fed by the Congaree River, was an established agricultural center dating back more than 300 years.

It’s home to Congaree National Park and other important sites that are central to the experiences of the African Americans and Indigenous people who have lived on the land over the centuries.

Despite Congress’s establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 and that land’s subsequent designation as a national park in 2003, much of Lower Richland has been treated as an environmental sacrifice zone.

Sacrifice zones are populated areas that are exposed to especially high pollution levels and other environmental and health hazards, usually due to close proximity to industrial plants and other polluting facilities.

According to the Climate Reality Project, “these areas are called ‘sacrifice zones’ because the health and safety of people in these communities is being effectively sacrificed for the economic gains and prosperity of others.” And it is no coincidence that sacrifice zones are typically in minority and/or low-income communities.

With unregulated dumpsites, a superfund site, and industrial plants, Lower Richland – with a history of redlining and a low-income, predominantly Black population – fits the definition. The International Processing Plants and Equipment Corporation (IPPE) sits on the former site of a steel mill that had been closed due to cancer-causing pollution. The International Paper Sylvamo facility, the Wateree Station coal power plant, and a Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant (that, even with a track record of sick workers and radioactive leaks, just received a 40-year permit renewal) are also packed into the Lower Richland.

As if the area was not already burdened with more than its fair share of pollution, Lower Richland sits just downriver from Columbia, South Carolina’s capital and largest city. Overdevelopment in the metro area and along its waterways threatens Lower Richland, including Congaree National Park, with increased flooding and additional pollution.

Lower Richland is a prime example of a community that could benefit tremendously from clean energy investments under the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – and the community is hungry for the opportunity.

Virginia Sanders, a longtime activist in Richland County who is active with the Midlands Sierra Club and the Lower Richland branch of the NAACP and served on the Richland County Conservation Commission for seven years, says:

“Lower Richland is a dumping ground for the rest of the county and the industries that set up shop here, while it could be a gold mine for the county and the state’s tourism industry. We need clean industry in this community.”

In order for that to happen, Ms. Sanders says it will take investments in both green jobs and the necessary training and education for area residents to secure and thrive in those jobs.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offer such remedies. And the state of South Carolina is already taking advantage.

New initiatives like a BMW electric vehicle battery plant and Bosch’s electric motor production facility are part of a $6.2 billion investment that promises significant economic growth and job creation for the state. More of that investment needs to be directed to communities like Lower Richland.

South Carolina has already applied for a grant under the Solar for All component of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund in the IRA. Solar for All provides for the funding of job training and workforce development in solar. And, because Lower Richland is a low-income area, the already generous tax incentives for clean and renewable energy investments under the IRA are even more generous, allowing investors to recoup as much as 60% of the dollars they put into the region.

Further, $203 million in IIJA funds, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, has already been announced for South Carolina to provide clean and safe water across the state and improve water infrastructure. That work is desperately needed in Lower Richland.

Although it’s situated just minutes from Columbia, most Lower Richland residents still use well water for drinking and septic tanks for waste. Much of the groundwater is contaminated by all the local industrial pollution, and seepage from septic tanks impacts Congaree National Park by getting into the river and, according to Virginia Sanders, has even led to some local reports of raw sewage bubbling up from the ground.

The Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act can fuel a sustainable, job-rich future and usher in a new era of prosperity and environmental progress. Let’s work together to ensure that communities like Lower Richland are a part of it.

Billionaires Are Lining Up To Fund Donald Trump’s Anti-Democratic Agenda

The more disturbing Trump’s public proclamations become, the more US plutocrats seem to want him to win.

As an ever-greater portion of the nation’s total wealth goes to the top, it’s hardly surprising that ever more of that wealth is corrupting US politics.

In the 2020 presidential election cycle, more than $14bn went to federal candidates, party committees, and Super Pacs – double the $7bn doled out in the 2016 cycle. Total giving in 2024 is bound to be much higher.

That money is not supporting US democracy. If anything, that money is contributing to rising Trumpism and neofascism.

There is a certain logic to this.

As more and more wealth concentrates at the top, the moneyed interests rationally fear that democratic majorities will take it away through higher taxes, stricter regulations (on everything from trade to climate change), enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, pro-union initiatives and price controls.

So they’re sinking ever more of their wealth into anti-democracy candidates.

Donald Trump is going full fascist these days and gaining the backing of prominent billionaires.

Earlier this month, on Veterans Day, Trump pledged to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”, whom he accused of doing anything “to destroy America and to destroy the American dream”. (Notably, he read these words from a teleprompter, meaning that they were intentional rather than part of another impromptu Trump rant.)

Days before, Trump claimed that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”. The New York Times reported that he was planning to round up millions of undocumented immigrants and detain them in sprawling camps while they wait to be expelled.

Trump has publicly vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Joe Biden and his family, and has told advisers and friends that he wants the justice department to investigate officials who have criticized his time in office.

This is, quite simply, full-throated neofascism.

Who’s bankrolling all this? While Trump’s base is making small contributions, the big money is coming from some of the richest people in the US.

During the first half of the year, multiple billionaires donated to the Trump-aligned Make America Great Again, Inc Super Pac.

Phil Ruffin (net worth of $3.4bn), the 88-year-old casino and hotel mogul, has given multiple $1m donations.

Charles Kushner (family net worth of $1.8bn), the real estate mogul and father of Jared, who received a late-term pardon from Trump in December 2020, contributed $1m in June.

Robert “Woody” Johnson (net worth of $3.7bn), Trump’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom and co-owner of the New York Jets, donated $1m to the Maga Pac in April.

And so on.

But Trump is not the only extremist pulling in big dollars.

Nikki Haley – who appears moderate only relative to Trump’s blatant neofascism – claimed in her campaign launch that Biden was promoting a “socialist” agenda.

During her two years as UN ambassador under Trump, Haley was a strong proponent of his so-called “zero tolerance” policy under which thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents and guardians.

She supported Trump’s decision to pull out of the UN human rights council and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Though she briefly criticized Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, Haley soon defended Trump and called on Democratic lawmakers to “give the man a break” when they impeached him for a second time.

Haley recently told Kristen Welker of NBC’s Meet the Press that while Trump’s floating the idea of executing retired Gen Mark Milley might be “irresponsible”, it is not enough to disqualify Trump from running for the White House again.<

Haley’s billionaire supporters include Stanley Druckenmiller and Eric LeVine. The Republican mega-donor Ken Griffin has said he is “actively contemplating” supporting Haley.

Notably, Haley has also gained the support of JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, who’s about as close as anyone in the US comes to being a spokesperson for the business establishment. Dimon admires Haley’s recognition of the role that “business and government can play in driving growth by working together”.

The moneyed interests have been placing big bets on other Trumpist Republicans.

Peter Thiel, the multibillionaire tech financier who once wrote that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” contributed more than $35m to 16 federal-level Republican candidates in the 2022 campaign cycle, making him the 10th largest individual donor to either party.

Twelve of Thiel’s candidates won, including Ohio’s now-senator JD Vance, who alleged that the 2020 election was stolen and that Biden’s immigration policy has meant “more Democrat voters pouring into this country”.

The Republican House majority leader, Steve Scalise, is creating a new fundraising committee which will be soliciting contributions of up to $586,200 a pop.

Elon Musk is not a major financial contributor to Trump nor other anti-democracy candidates, but his power over one of the most influential megaphones in the US gives him inordinate clout – which he is using to further the neofascist cause.

Witness Musk’s solicitude of Trump, his seeming endorsement of antisemitic posts, his embrace of Tucker Carlson and “great replacement” theory, and his avowed skepticism towards democracy.

Democracy is compatible with capitalism only if democracy is in the driver’s seat, so it can rein in capitalism’s excesses.

But if capitalism and its moneyed interests are in charge, those excesses inevitably grow to the point where they are able to extinguish democracy and ride roughshod over the common good.

That’s why Trump’s neofascism – and the complicity of today’s Republican party with it – are attracting the backing of some of the richest people in the US.

What’s the alternative? A loud pro-democracy movement that fights against concentrated wealth at the top, humongous CEO pay packages, a politically powerful financial sector, and tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations.

And fights for higher taxes on the top (including a wealth tax) to finance Medicare for all, affordable housing, and accessible childcare and eldercare.

The willingness to make this a fight – to name the moneyed interests backing neofascism, explain why they’re doing this, and mobilize and energize the US against their agenda and in favor of democracy – is critical to winning the 2024 election and preserving and rebuilding US democracy.

Biden and the Democrats must take this on, loudly and clearly.

Poor People In The Developing World Have A Right To Medicine

People should not die because of their income or where they were born. We must have the courage to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry.

Here is a simple moral proposition. No one in America, or anywhere in the world, should die or suffer unnecessarily because they cannot afford a prescription drug which, in many cases, costs a few cents or a few dollars to manufacture

As chairman of the US Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee (Help) I’m going to do everything I can to develop a new approach to the development and manufacturing of prescription drugs that responds to medical need, rather than short-term shareholder profit. Given the power and greed of the pharmaceutical industry this is not an easy task, but it’s one that must be pursued.

The tragic reality is that, today, millions of people around the world are suffering, and dying, from preventable diseases because they can’t afford the outrageous prices charged by pharmaceutical companies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one-third of humanity lacks access to essential medicines. For a staggering number of people around the world, this leads to what the WHO calls “a cascade of preventable misery and suffering”.

There are a number of reasons why this tragic reality continues to happen.

First, too often drug companies abuse patent monopolies to charge outrageous prices or otherwise keep lifesaving drugs out of reach for people around the world. For example, the Boston-based drug company Vertex is neither selling a transformative new treatment for cystic fibrosis in the developing world, nor allowing other local companies to produce it. Put simply, the company is not only refusing to bring a life-raft to people drowning with cystic fibrosis in poor countries, it is also blocking others from deploying their own life-rafts to people who need them to stay alive.

Second, far too often, the medicines that are desperately needed by millions of people in poor countries are not being produced by the pharmaceutical industry because the drug companies cannot make sufficient profits by doing so. In the US and other developed countries people often pay exorbitant prices for life-saving medicines. Poor people in developing countries can’t. They don’t have the money. The result: they die. Because the business model of the pharmaceutical industry values dollars gained over lives saved, there are not enough companies looking for transformative treatments, especially for diseases that afflict poor people.

Consider the case of tuberculosis (TB) – a disease that killed more than 1.3 million people in 2022, and is on the rise as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The TB vaccine still used today is more than a hundred years old, and only protects young children, even though adolescents and adults account for the majority of TB transmission. The testing of a promising new publicly funded TB vaccine that could potentially save millions of lives was delayed after its corporate owner, GSK, decided to focus on more profitable vaccines.

The scientist who brought GSK the idea of the TB vaccine decades ago now acknowledges that big pharma cannot deliver for developing countries. “You get a big company to take it forward? Bullshit,” he told ProPublica. “That model is gone. It’s failed. It’s dead. We have to create a new one.”

Clearly, we must do better. The life of a millionaire in New York City is not worth more than the life of a person living in extreme poverty in South Sudan.

Fundamentally, we need to transform how we pay for the development of new prescription drugs. This starts with funding open-source research, so lifesaving information is shared, and scientists around the world can work together to research and manufacture their own breakthroughs. Patents should not stand in the way of public health.

If we can provide $886bn to the Pentagon for military spending, we can provide scientists with the money they need to develop cutting-edge cures that are accessible to everyone.

People should not die because of their income or where they were born. We know what it will take to save lives. Now we must have the courage to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry. Let’s do it.

Medicare Advantage Is Giving Away Billions To Corporate Insurers. It’s Time We Put A Stop To It

Physicians and policymakers are, in different ways, both responsible for the health and well-being of patients. While physicians care for patients to the best of their ability, policymakers ensure that the structures that make up the health care system are effective and equitable. Whenever and wherever there is a threat to these goals, both groups have a role to play in recognizing and combating it. That is why we are speaking out on the need to make fundamental changes to the Medicare Advantage (MA) program.

MA as it exists today is a threat to patient care, to health equity, and indeed to the integrity of our public health infrastructure. A new report from Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization of doctors working to reform the health care system, shows that for-profit, corporate MA insurers are overpaid anywhere from $88 to $140 billion a year. That’s money coming out of patients’ and taxpayers’ pockets.

MA is the privately-run version of the traditional government-administered Medicare program. Instead of paying directly for care, the government instead pays insurers to “manage” patients’ needs. Enrollment in this program has grown significantly over the past two decades, with over 50 percent of eligible beneficiaries opting for an MA plan in 2023. Unfortunately, growth in the program has not led to better care for beneficiaries or a better deal for taxpayers — just the opposite, in fact. Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are being siphoned off as profit by insurance companies that don’t even provide necessary care. That money doesn’t just cost our government, it costs seniors. For example, premiums paid for Medicare Part B, which covers most medical services outside of hospitalization, totaled $131 billion in 2022. With the amount of extra money that corporate insurers get from the government, we could totally eliminate Part B premiums and still have money left over.

Where is all this money coming from? It’s complicated, the result of a tangled web of loopholes, policies, and practices that are difficult for an individual beneficiary or physician to see. Even so, scholars and regulators have identified a few major factors that lead to overpayments. For example, insurance companies in MA tend to enroll patients that are healthier and therefore cost less than average but still get paid as if their patients were much sicker. This is called favorable selection, and by some estimates, it could cost as much as $75 billion a year in extra payments.

Because Medicare gives additional money to MA insurers for patients with more severe or more numerous diagnoses, another source of overpayments are all the irrelevant or old conditions that insurers record on patient charts. This practice is known as upcoding; these conditions aren’t being actively treated, so they don’t cost the insurance company anything, but they do lead to as much as $20 billion in extra payments. These methods only scratch the surface of all the ways in which MA insurers take advantage of the system, but the bottom line is clear: these companies are pocketing billions of dollars that belong to Medicare beneficiaries.

Of course, it isn’t just about the money; it’s also about patient care. Medicare Advantage plans tout their low premiums and extra benefits, but often these are only worth it as long as you’re healthy. If you get sick and need complex or significant care, plans start to show their true colors. Difficult authorization processes and narrow networks can make getting treated under an MA plan a nightmare. In fact, high-need patients with chronic conditions and patients in their last year of life are substantially more likely to switch out of MA and back to traditional Medicare, tired of having to justify each and every needed procedure or medication to their insurance company.

In our roles as a member of Congress and a practicing physician, we see different but equally concerning manifestations of these problems. Constituents call in with stories of being lured into an MA plan, and then denied care or prevented from seeing their doctor. Cancer patients, for whom an early diagnosis and treatment plan is imperative to survival, face weeks of delay because of onerous pre-authorization requirements. In fact, some of these patients have ended up needing emergency surgery or aggressive radiation that could’ve been avoided if insurers hadn’t gotten in the way. MA doesn’t just take billions in taxpayer dollars; it makes it harder for doctors to do their jobs, and harder for patients to get well.

With the money that we spend on corporate giveaways, we could entirely fund Medicare’s prescription drug benefit, establish an out-of-pocket maximum in traditional Medicare, or even provide dental, hearing, and vision benefits to everyone on Medicare and everyone on Medicaid. This doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. We should all agree that programs paid for by the people should benefit the people. It’s time to crack down on overpayments in MA and use those resources to improve Medicare for all patients.

Voters Aren’t Green About Climate Change Threats

This November’s election results should be a wake-up call to any politician who was unsure of Americans’ desire for robust climate action and support for a green economy. In states and counties that are red, blue and everywhere in between, voters favored forward-looking candidates who embraced both the need for and the economic benefits of aggressive climate action.

As much of the reporting on this election cycle has already pointed out, reproductive freedom was clearly a heavy driver of Democratic performance on Election Day. That shouldn’t overshadow the fact that, in marquee races, well-funded attacks against strong climate policies from the far right and fossil fuel interests were ignored or rejected by the voters they hoped to sway. And the emphasis on reproductive freedom doesn’t diminish the role that issues like clean energy and a healthy future for our planet and our communities played in galvanizing voters.

The climate crisis is here. It’s not politely knocking at our door; it’s banging it down. Americans in every corner of this country are hyperaware of it, especially after the dangerous and deadly heat waves and wildfires many of us experienced this year. What we’re seeing in our backyards is connected to a larger, global crisis that is affecting all life on this planet we call home. Just-released research shows that the past 12 months were the hottest on record.

This fight has always been about our future, but increasingly it’s also about our present. Voters get it.

This was especially evident in Virginia, where voters forcefully denied the Republican governor’s bid for full control of the state government. The electoral rebuke of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his views — in which Democrats didn’t just protect their state Senate majority but also gained control of the state House — effectively ends his push to undo the climate progress enacted under his predecessor.

Youngkin sought to roll back emissions standards aimed at moving Virginia away from the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines as of 2035. And he has been waging an effort to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-trade program.

LaTwyla Mathias, who leads Progress Virginia and worked to mobilize voters in this year’s election, said that among her organization’s digital ads this cycle — which were shown to voters of color, young voters and women — the ads focused on climate were the top performers.

“Our research shows that climate voters care about freedom: the freedom to breathe clean air, the freedom to live in a healthy environment, and the freedom to make decisions for themselves,” Mathias said. “Black and brown voters showed up on Tuesday because they know we’ve fought too long and too hard to let special interests take these freedoms from us.”

“By electing climate champions, we can fight back on growing health risks and pollution in marginalized neighborhoods, defend our neighbors with severe medical conditions, make sure that our communities have an opportunity to get trained in new jobs so that the transition to clean energy doesn’t leave anyone behind, and protect the progress we’ve made with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” Mathias said.

So, as we discuss all the fundamental rights that were on the ballot this year and will be in 2024 — abortion, the right to vote, gender equality, workers’ rights and more — let’s not forget that the results of the Nov. 7 elections prove that the right to a clean environment and a habitable planet is a major election issue for an ever-growing number of Americans — especially those who live in communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

The Supreme Court’s New ‘Code Of Ethics’ Changes Nothing

This latest pathetic attempt at pacifying the public will do little to reverse the sharp decline in public confidence in the nation’s highest court.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced an ethics code for the justices. But the code is utterly empty. It has no enforcement mechanism and no mechanism for the public to lodge complaints of misconduct.

It’s public relations pablum.

The court effectively admitted this, saying that “the absence of a Code… has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the justices of this court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.”

The new code has no system for the public to lodge complaints or for any outside review of alleged ethical violations.

Misunderstanding? I’m sorry, but the public understands quite well that the justices regard themselves as free to do whatever they wish, in terms of ethics.

In April, ProPublica documented years of undisclosed luxury travel enjoyed by Justice Clarence Thomas, including private jets and trips aboard a super-yacht courtesy of a Texas real estate magnate and conservative donor, Harlan Crow. Since then, other undisclosed gifts to Thomas have been revealed, all from powerful friends—including a motor coach, private school tuition for a grandnephew the justice was raising, and the justice’s mother’s home in an undisclosed real estate deal.

Thomas has also come under fire for failing to recuse himself from cases related to attacks on the 2020 election results—given that his wife, Virginia Thomas, worked to overturn the 2020 election results in the weeks leading up to the Capitol attack.

Other justices, including Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch, have also failed to disclose their connections to wealthy people with close ties to the court. Alito did not report a 2008 trip on the private jet of Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who later had cases before the court.

Alito defended his conduct in an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal, writing that he had “no obligation” to recuse himself from the cases involving Singer’s business, and did not have to report the travel and lodging because the jet constituted a “facility” exempt from reporting requirements. He claimed that the justices “commonly interpreted” hospitality to include accommodations and transportation for social events that did not have to be reported as gifts.

In addition to Thomas and Alito, Gorsuch did not disclose that the head of a major law firm had purchased a Colorado vacation property that he co-owned. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s staff pushed public entities hosting her to purchase her books; she failed to recuse herself from cases involving her book publisher.

The new code would have had no effect on any of these instances and will have no effect on future ethical lapses.

The new rules don’t require any changes in how the justices conduct themselves.

The new code has no system for the public to lodge complaints or for any outside review of alleged ethical violations.

In the absence of any enforcement process, the document states that Chief Justice John Roberts has directed court staff to do a review of “best practices” based on systems already in place in the lower courts. It didn’t provide a timeline for that review or what action the court might take in response.

What prompted the court to put out this piece of PR pablum now?

Probably the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on Thursday for issuing subpoenas to Republican megadonor Harlan Crow and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo as part of its ongoing investigation into the Supreme Court.

As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, chair of the Judiciary Committee subcommittee overseeing the federal courts, explained:

We need to develop information about how systemic this was. This isn’t just a random gift here and a random gift there. It’s always the same individuals, the same front groups. It’s—there’s a network effect here that we need to understand… What you have is billionaires with a demonstrated pattern of trying to influence the Supreme Court through a whole variety of groups by giving donations and participating, who are at the same time also giving enormous, massive, secret gifts to justices. Just on its face, that merits investigation. And if it happened in any other court in the United States, it would have been investigated. There would have been fact-finding, and there would have been a result and consequences. It’s only the Supreme Court that is living outside the bounds of the rules.

The Supreme Court’s new “Code of Ethics” changes nothing. The court is still living outside the bounds of rules.

Ultimately, I blame Chief Justice John Roberts. The court’s chief justice is supposed to maintain public trust and confidence in the court, but Roberts has done everything possible to avoid a Code of Ethics with teeth. This latest pathetic attempt at pacifying the public will do little to reverse the sharp decline in public confidence in the nation’s highest court.

At his nomination hearing in September 2005, I testified against Roberts becoming the next chief justice. I had no confidence in his ability or willingness to put the public interest above the interests of individual justices. Sad to say, I’ve been proven correct.

The Hidden Cost of Fossil Fuel Exports

Oil, gas, and coal exports are not counted when countries tally their greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. This allows wealthy nations to report progress on emissions reduction goals, while shipping their fossil fuels — and the pollution they produce — overseas.

When the world convenes in the United Arab Emirates later this month for the next round of the endless climate slog, much attention will be paid to the pledges of individual nations to cut their emissions. This has been the basic scorecard of climate talks almost since the start. But it’s a wildly incomplete scorecard, in ways that are becoming ever clearer as we enter the endgame of the energy transition. We’ve been measuring it wrong.

That’s because a country’s exports of fossil fuel don’t count against its total. But it’s those exports that are driving fossil fuel expansion around the world, coming as they do from some of the most diplomatically powerful and wealthy nations on Earth.

To give the most obvious, and largest, example: the United States is, fitfully, cutting back on its carbon emissions; its envoys will be able to report, honestly, that the Inflation Reduction Act should soon actually be trimming our domestic use of oil, gas, and coal, as we subsidize heat pumps and build out EV charging networks. But at the very same moment, the U.S. production of fossil fuels is booming. That means, of course, that much of that supply is headed overseas.

And the numbers are truly staggering. If the liquefied natural gas (LNG) buildout continues as planned, for instance, by 2030 U.S. LNG exports will be responsible for more greenhouse gases than every house, car, and factory in the European Union. The emissions, under the U.N. accounting system, will show up on the scorecards of the EU and the dozens of mostly Asian nations that will buy the gas. But if you could see them in the atmosphere, they would be red, white, and blue.

Exactly the same thing is true of a handful of other nations — in fact, some are even more grotesque in their hypocrisy, if not their impact. Norway has, arguably, done as good a job as any country on earth on moving past oil and gas; almost every new car in the country runs on electricity. But it’s planning one of the dozen biggest expansions in national oil and gas production, almost all of it for export. Canada and Australia fall into the same basket. Indeed, a remarkable new report from Oil Change International (OCI) found that those four countries (the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Norway), along with the U.K., account for just over half of the planned expansion in oil and gas between now and mid-century. In most cases the project licenses have already been granted, and unless officials intervene, the damage (enough carbon and methane to take us past the Paris climate targets) is locked in.

But this means that if other nations and the climate movement could figure out how to pressure these countries to turn the spigot to the right, we could staunch much of this flow of greenhouse gases into the air. If five countries account for half the expansion problem — and if those five countries are rich and have diversified economies that allow them freedom of choice about their futures — then some of the main targets are clear. All of them, remember, have made the right noises about the need for urgent climate action; they just haven’t been willing to face down their exporters.

Canada continues to approve and/or subsidize new pipelines and LNG export projects, while permitting new oil and gas fields, putting it on track to become the world’s second-largest producer of oil and gas. Australia, the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter, has given the green light to major new coal and gas projects. Norway, Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, has awarded 47 new licenses for oil and gas projects in the Norwegian Sea and is permitting expansion into the Barents Sea in the Arctic. And the current Conservative government in the U.K. has adopted a policy to “max out” fossil fuel development in the North Sea.

As for the U.S., the OCI report makes clear it plans by far the biggest expansion of its oil and gas industry — about a third of the global total. Basically, this is a result of the invention of fracking, which beginning in the early 2000s allowed the rapid expansion of oil and gas production. We literally have more of the stuff than we know what to do with — so we needed to find other people to sell it to.

That would have been largely impossible prior to 2015 — since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the U.S. had had a ban on crude oil exports. But in one the great historical ironies of all time, Congress, under great pressure from the fossil fuel industry, lifted that ban the very week that the world was in Paris wrapping up the global climate accords. A few of us were fighting (with our laptops, from Paris cafes) to keep the ban in place; I coauthored an op-ed then that criticized congressional leaders as “politicians who simply don’t understand the physics of climate change.

As it turns out, I didn’t understand the true scale of the disaster unfolding. Because it wasn’t just crude oil that was going to be sold abroad; until 2016 the U.S. had been a net importer of natural gas, but that year things began to turn. And it’s LNG that has truly turned America into an export monster. Enormous terminals — seven of them — have been built, mostly along the Gulf Coast, with 24 more planned; their business rationale is simply to take the excess gas produced by the fracking spree and send it overseas. And the numbers are astonishing. Remember the anger that President Biden brought upon himself (and the damage with young voters) when he stupidly approved the Willow oil complex in Alaska in March? Well, the next export terminal up for approval — CP2, in Cameron Parish, Louisiana — would be associated with 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the Willow project.

The Obama administration, of course, loved fracking — it seemed like an easy way out of both the climate and economic predicaments it inherited, jumpstarting the economy with cheap fossil fuel and, since natural gas produces less carbon than coal when its burned, allowing America’s CO2 emissions to fall. But on closer examination, it was a devil’s bargain: methane leaking from the natural gas production chain balanced out those carbon gains, and so it was unclear if total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions had even budged. But that didn’t slow the push for more — which accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the fossil fuel industry grabbed at the chance to expand natural gas production as an altruistic response. Whatever you think of that argument, we’ve already more than met the needs of the EU; it had enough gas for last winter, and more to come this year. There is definitely no need to build new terminals, which would lock in huge increases in production for the next 40 years.

That’s especially true since the old argument for exporting gas — it was cleaner than the coal being burned in Asia — no longer makes sense. Since sun and wind now produce the cheapest energy on earth, we’re no longer talking about transition fuels. The whole point of net zero emissions is that we have to move fast to the actually clean stuff.

And it’s especially true because we’ve been learning that exporting this stuff is even more dangerous than using it at home. A new paper from Cornell’s Bob Howarth (the dean of methane science) that I first reported on in the New Yorkerlast week has truly shocking implications. It showed that when you put LNG on a boat and send it off around the world, large amounts leak out in the process. In the best-case scenario, it is 24 percent worse for the climate than burning coal; in the worst case (old ship, long voyage) it’s 274 percent worse. This is mind-boggling and soul-sickening, and it makes the calculations in, say, the OCI report much more ominous.

Yet Biden could limit the damage. Though his administration has already approved too many of these projects, he could stop the ones that remain. Under federal law, the Department of Energy needs to grant an export license for each new terminal, certifying that sending it to countries with which we don’t have a free trade agreement is in the national interest. And clearly this isn’t; standing up here could help him regain some of the ground he lost with the Willow calamity. And it would be hard for the other side to demagogue. Because exporting natural gas clearly drives the price up here at home — that’s how economics works. Indeed, Biden could even reinstate the ban on crude oil exports lifted in 2015.

The most important decision any of these leaders — in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Norway, or the U.K. — could make is simply to say, “We won’t be the hydrocarbon equivalent of the narcotics cartels.” If they did, some of the slack would be taken up by other nations, like the United Arab Emirates, erstwhile host of the upcoming COP. But some of it would also be taken up by the switch to renewables; with the biggest suppliers leaving the market, prices would rise, and the spreadsheet would change. Again, that’s how economics works.

But the real question here may be, how do politics work? The fossil fuel industry demonstrated its firm grip on power in the U.S. in 2015 when it got the export ban lifted. Now the industry is flush with cash: Exxon reported a quarterly profit of $9.1 billion last month. It’s using its cash to buy up even more fracking real estate; clearly it concludes it has the political juice to enable it to face Biden down and keep on pumping gas for the planet.

And Exxon and the U.S. are not alone in this arrogance. In Canada, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau keeps talking a good game on reducing emissions — but at some level, who cares? There aren’t enough Canadians to produce that much carbon (indeed, the wildfires across the nation will produce more than twice as much as the people this year). Canada’s huge contribution to our global crisis is its exports. Trudeau quite honestly summed up his nation’s position in 2017 in a talk to Texas oilmen, when he told the truth about the country’s vast tar sands complex: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” Canada couldn’t burn 173 billion barrels of oil if everyone in the country kept their car idling 24 hours a day, and they couldn’t burn the enormous quantity of natural gas that’s been found further north in Alberta if they all turned their thermostats to 115 and wore bathing suits all winter. That’s why they’re busy building pipelines to take the oil and the gas to the Pacific.

I could do the same math for Australia or the U.K. or Norway. No matter what they stand up and say in the UAE over the next month, remember: They’ve decided to hold a fire sale at the end of the world.

Making Connections That Can Help Save the Planet

If we’re going to realize the climate benefits of historic federal support for clean energy and jobs approved in the past two years, connections are the key. And I’m not just talking about electrifying homes and buildings.

We need to connect people to the benefits spread throughout the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. We do that by connecting people to others in the communities where they live and with the individuals, local units of government, and non-profits who can help them take advantage of a lengthy list of tax credits and rebates for everything from electric cars to more energy-efficient windows and doors.

The need is clear. Seven in 10 Americans say they know little or nothing about the IRA by name. The same is true for specific parts of the package like tax credits for home solar panels and heat pumps.

Bobby Foley of Elephant Energy, a climate tech start-up in Colorado, sees the information gaps and hears the questions up close. “We are on the ground, scoping out a heat pump with homeowners and installing it.”

Foley can help that homeowner use rebates from a local utility and the city of Denver, alongside state and federal tax credits, to cut the cost on a new $20,000 electric heat pump to heat and cool their homes by more than half. He can install heat pumps in homes without ducts and in places where temperatures drop below zero. The result is far less carbon and 300% greater energy efficiency than a furnace and air conditioner at substantially lower monthly cost to the customer, he said.

But the people Foley meets already know enough to at least inquire. There are more than 100 programs scattered through the $370 billion in the IRA that aim to assist individuals, businesses, and state and local governments. Projections show that if we can use all that money thoughtfully and equitably, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40%.

There’s a good deal of evidence to show that people need help to connect. The National Council on Aging, for example, estimates seniors leave $30 billion of potential government assistance for food, housing, and health care unclaimed. There’s often a lack of awareness or misconceptions about the difficulty of applying. The non-profit Code for America, which works to make government more effective and accessible, found that even the words used to offer programs like tax credits and food assistance to Americans makes a difference in their response rate.

For clean energy incentives, many states also have stepped in with their own support that can significantly improve the attractiveness of acting to switch to a cleaner product. That means the opportunities can vary a lot from place to place.

To help fill the gap, the Sierra Club is making a national push to recruit, prepare, and offer volunteers across the country — Community Advocates — to help people and their communities get the support that’s available to protect the planet.

Bekah Ashley has worked with Utah school districts to apply for funds from the infrastructure package to transition their transportation to electric school buses. Communities can share $1 billion a year. School buses account for the largest public bus fleet across the country, but school systems “often get overlooked in climate action,” Ashley noted.

School board members might have sticker shock — electric buses can cost more than two times new diesel buses, Ashley said. But the federal incentives and the far lower operating costs change that perspective.

Communities recognize the need and favor of government support for a cleaner economy It’s something most of us believe in. But we need to ensure that support doesn’t stay written on the pages of legislation. We need to learn more — preferably from using the incentives ourselves — and share that knowledge with others who can benefit from it.