The US federal government is proposing to spend a sum of money beginning with a “T” on an infrastructure bill, and a lot of that money (two trillion dollars) aims to tackle the climate crisis. This is remarkable, and not just considering that we are only seventy-five days away from an administration that did not believe climate change was real. In my lifetime, we have spent money like this mainly on very dangerous infrastructure – aircraft carriers, fighter jets, nuclear weapons – and the wars in which it has been used. Seeing a proposal to spend it on solar panels and trains is on the move, and also a little boring: why haven’t we been doing this from the start? Why didn’t we do it in the eighties, when scientists first told us we were in crisis? So now seems like a good time to really try to calculate the score: what are we doing as a nation now, is it enough, and how would we know if it is?
One of the best summaries of what’s in Biden’s proposal comes from David Roberts in his Volts newsletter: it highlights the coolest features of the electrification of the postal service delivery fleet (and a fifth of the nation’s school buses) to a national climate laboratory located in a Black College and a major transportation network for renewable energy that can follow existing rail rights-of-way. Energy systems engineer Jesse Jenkins, on Twitter, points out that the bill should stimulate the electric car industry – the subsidy for buyers would make the cost difference with gasoline cars disappear. Julian Brave NoiseCat greet provisions of the plan that would send forty percent of investments to underprivileged communities, which is a sharp turn off from how big federal spending bills have worked for most of American history.
The criticism, at least from environmentalists, was of the “yes and” type. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that she thought we should spend not two trillion dollars, but ten trillion. Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, who has done as much as any organization to bring us to this moment, highlighted that the bill incorporates much of what the Green New Deal advocates, including ten billion for a Civilian Climate Corps to put people to work to build new energy infrastructure. But “we are just orders of magnitude smaller than we need to be,” she said. “And I think that this fight on the scale and the scope of what must happen in terms of employment and job creation, in terms of the scale of investments and urgency, will be a field of struggle to as this plan becomes. debated and discussed in Congress. Surely she is right about that, and I fear there is as much pressure to cut spending as to increase it.
The question of whether this is “enough” is, of course, the right one – and the answer is no. Summer sea ice cover in the Arctic has declined by fifty percent since the 1980s, and there were a record thirty named tropical storms last year, including one off the coast of New England, pushing up against smoke from wildfires across the country in California. We should be investing every penny we can in green projects, and even then we would still face a continuous rise in temperature. This is why movements must continue to make efforts to strengthen support for climate action.
But another test of whether that spending is enough will come in the coming months as we monitor Washington’s decisions on big projects like the Line 3 tar sands pipeline, which runs through Minnesota. One would hope that a two trillion dollar jobs program – with all kinds of promises on union contracts – would buy enough goodwill with the unions that Biden would get away with killing these projects. Politicians like to build things more than they like to shut them down, but dealing with the climate crisis requires doing both, and if this generous new proposal gives Biden the freedom to act aggressively, then we would get a double return on investment.
The Administration faces similar tensions on other fronts. John Kerry, the global climate czar, was job Wall Street in recent weeks, trying to rally financial giants ahead of the world climate summit the administration called on April 22. Banks are happy to make proclamations on their net zero plans for 2050, and they are delighted to commitment a lot of lending in the renewable energy sector on the sudden trend, but they are not happy to stop their lending to the fossil fuel industry. Like the construction trades, they would be very happy to make money with the old and the new. And, of course, that would be nice, except for the physics.
There is a lot of this ambivalence going around. (Reuters reported last week a World Bank draft statement committed to “making funding decisions in line with efforts to limit global warming” but not stopping lending for fossil fuel projects.) C ‘ is why, at the end of last month, over a hundred organizations sent Kerry a letter asserting that “no amount of new green finance commitments can credibly repair the damage their fossil fuel financing is doing to the climate, to US climate leadership and to our chances of achieving the goals of the Paris.” (Full disclosure – letter opens citing a trial that I wrote for this magazine.) It would be wise for the administration and the banks to pay attention to this. Otherwise, Robinson Meyer points out in the Atlantic, as the Administration’s commitment to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 begins to become a reality, there will be a “fire sale” of fossil fuel assets that could cause real damage to the environment. ‘economy. It would be much better to prick this carbon and financial bubble now.
This is what the climate fight will look like for the foreseeable future: not a fight over whether we should be doing something, but a fight over what we should be doing. And the cheapest parts of the fight – financially, if not politically – are to stop the dangerous activities of the fossil fuel industry. We are in a much better political situation than we were a few months ago, but in February we passed a scary landmark—There is now fifty percent more CO2 in the air than there was at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Ultimately, measuring carbon in the atmosphere and the temperature rise it causes is how we’re really going to keep track of it.
Pass the microphone
Morgan Whitten is a Harvard senior from Stuttgart, Germany, and a Harvard Fossil Fuel Divest organizer. The students have been campaigning for Harvard to sell its fossil fuel stakes for nearly a decade (long enough for one of the original organizers, Chloe Maxmin, to have graduated, was elected to the House of Representatives of the Maine, then to the Maine State Senate). But, confined by Covid to a virtual campus, organizers have extended their campaign beyond marches and sit-ins to legal strategies. They initiated a complaint filed with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an attempt to force Harvard out of business, in accordance with its responsibilities under state law as a nonprofit educational institution.
Harvard students, faculty, and alumni have tried many strategies to get Harvard to join Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California system, and others by committing to disengage. How did activists approach this legal strategy?
For years, we’ve rallied, paraded, mounted art installations, and even disrupted a football game to get the attention of the administration and the community. Last March, our campaign had to pivot to digital operations. Two things we can certainly do remotely are research and writing. So we’ve teamed up with lawyers from the Climate Defense Project to draft this complaint, which is part of a growing strategy to legally target fossil fuel companies and hold their enablers accountable. If the complaint is successful, it could set a precedent that would force the country’s powerful investors to clean up their climate laws. We have always said that Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels are immoral – now we argue that they are also illegal.
What is the basic legal argument and who will make the case?
We filed the complaint with over seventy signatories, including students, faculty, alumni, community members, climate scientists, elected officials, investors, philanthropists, and civic organizations. We argue that Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels violate the Uniform Law on the Prudent Management of Institutional Funds. Harvard is required to maintain its charitable focus, invest in the Harvard community, and manage its endowment prudently. Investing in fossil fuels contradicts these obligations. First, the university’s mission is to educate young people and inspire them to “work for a more just, more just and more promising world”. But the business model of the fossil fuel industry is based on environmental destruction and injustice. Second, Harvard’s support for the fossil fuel industry threatens Harvard’s own campus and endangers the future of its own students (and everyone else). And, finally, with the decline of the oil, gas and coal industries, investing in fossil fuel stocks doesn’t even make financial sense anymore. We hope the complaint brings these violations to the attorney general’s attention and persuades her to intervene to protect the interests of the people of Massachusetts.