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The Weekly Anthropocene, November 16 2022
A Dispatch from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
Victory! Overcoming economic headwinds and long-standing American political dynamics where the incumbent president’s party tends to lose seats, the Democratic Party has elected and re-elected a wide range of climate-smart, democracy-defending candidates in the November 2022 midterm elections.
The broad contours of this election are well-known by now, and there’s a lot of broadly impactful good news outside of this newsletter’s climate and environment focus. This newsletter can only offer a very brief summary focused on climate and environmental impacts: for a broader overview of these excellent midterm results and their implications, we recommend this Substack post.
In the US Senate:
The Democrats have held their 50-seat majority in the Senate (gaining a seat with Senator-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania), and may expand it to 51 seats if Senator Raphael Warnock wins his runoff race on December 6th. This is spectacular news. As the Senate controls the appointment of new federal judges and executive branch positions, this will likely greatly help the deployment of Biden’s magnificent already-passed Inflation Reduction Act (with over $350 billion in energy and climate spending!), as well as preventing undercutting of environmental regulations.
In the US House of Representatives:
At the time of this writing, control of the House of Representatives remains undecided, with the final outcome extremely likely to be an ultra-narrow Republican majority, ahead of the Democrats by only a single-digits number of the 435 House seats. This is a loss, true, as the House was previously under Democratic control; we’re not going to get any more big-ticket climate legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act. However, this is an insanely great performance for an incumbent president’s party in a midterm: for context, the Democrats gained 41 new house seats in the 2018 midterm and the Republicans gained 63 in the 2010 midterms. The Republicans’ narrow and fractious majority may also leave the door open to some further bipartisan investment in clean energy research and manufacturing spending along the lines of the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act, particularly if it’s framed as an effort to stay competitive with China (true) instead of a climate initiative. We’ll see!
In state-level races
Democrats did spectacularly in competitive state-level races this cycle, and that will really help climate and environmental action across America!
Governors with strong climate records won reelection in an array of swing states, including:
Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Janet Mills of Maine, JB Pritzker of Illinois, and Jared Polis of Colorado, all absolute environmental champions who have all passed landmark new laws requiring their states to move to 100% clean energy by 2050 or earlier.
Tim Walz of Minnesota, who previously tried to pass a similar law and may now succeed with Democratic victories at the statehouse level (see below).
Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a notably strong supporter of electric vehicles and battery manufacturing who may also get the chance to pass new, strong climate legislation.
And Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Laura Kelly of Kansas, whose progress was limited by hostile Republican state legislatures but nevertheless stood as bulwarks against extremism.
Really the only disappointment was the loss of Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak of Nevada, a staunch supporter of solar power and another great climate leader who passed a 100% clean energy law. He will be replaced by Republican Joe Lombardo, but his legacy of more renewable energy and cleaner air for Nevadans will remain.
New Democratic governors were elected as well; in Oregon (Tina Kotek!) and Pennsylvania (Josh Shapiro!) they replaced other Democrats and will likely continue pro-climate action policies. In Massachusetts (Maura Healey!), Maryland (Wes Moore!), and Arizona (Katie Hobbs!) they replaced outgoing Republicans. Healey and Moore in particular are notable “climate hawks” expected to advance proactive environmental legislation.
Furthermore, many of these governors will have supportive state governments to work with. For the first time since 1934, the incumbent president’s party hasn’t lost a single state legislative chamber in a midterms election year. (Note that Nevada and Arizona results have resolved to “split control” and Oregon to “Democratic control” since the graphic above was created). In fact, Democrats defended all their existing “trifectas”-states with a Democratic Governor, Senate, and House-and added four new trifectas in Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, and Minnesota. New, strong climate action is these four states is almost certain to come!
And finally, in one of this election cycle’s relatively few important state-level ballot initiatives, New Yorkers voted in a new $4.2 billion climate resilience bond, the money from which will fund shoreline restoration, water quality improvement, and sustainable building projects. At least 35% of the funds will be spent in historically disadvantaged communities. Great news!
And in Maine
A state dear to this writer’s heart, the Democrats had a great night in Maine, with Janet Mills winning a commanding 55% of the vote for reelection and expanded Democrat margins in the Maine House and Senate. (Pictured, above: Governor Mills' victory). This augurs more spectacular climate progress in the Mills Administration’s second term!1 For a rundown of Governor Mills’ accomplishments so far, check out the interactive web map this writer volunteered to create! And keep an eye out for the second annual Maine Won’t Wait state climate action report, set to be published this December.
All in all, a pretty awesome midterms election! The Democrats passed America’s largest-ever climate action bill in August, faced no penalty for it from the electorate, and are now set to build on that success. Great news!
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka COP27, is well underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, set to conclude on November 18th. So far, news from the conference has been dominated by a big ethical failure: Egypt’s military government’s general dictatorial oppression, particularly the brutal imprisonment and torture (without a trial or, indeed, publicly announced charges) of pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, one of tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. Climate activists, being a pretty ethical bunch, have widely condemned this (as have several Western governments) and protested for Alaa’s freedom at the conference itself. Also, Egypt’s official COP27 app appears to be a surveillance tool to track attendees’ location and access their private data. It would be nice if we could just not hold climate summits in brutal military dictatorships!2
Fortunately, these issues (while serious) aren’t slowing down the global surge of climate action that has been gaining more and more strength in recent years. As Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic writes, since the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, the most useful aspect of the UN climate talks may be simply to exist as "a space to manage climate change.” Even if new major international agreements are unlikely, it’s quite valuable to have a yearly event where every country in the world wants to have some new piece of climate action to announce. And there’s been some cool stuff announced this year!
Loss and Damage
One of the big-ticket items under discussion at COP27 is loss and damage. Broadly speaking, the dozens of developing countries currently suffering climate disasters caused by decades of richer countries’ greenhouse gas emissions would like historically heavy emitters to pay into a new global fund to compensate them for “loss and damage” caused by climate disasters, and help them pay for new resilience efforts to survive the impacts of climate change. As veteran climate activist Bill McKibben put it in his Substack, this demand is both “entirely legitimate” and “politically impossible.” While it’s highly unlikely that nations will agree on a new legal framework for this, especially not one that imposes any kind of formal obligation on developed countries, there has been some progress on smaller, voluntary commitments and other climate finance initiatives. For example, the US has proposed a new “Energy Transition Accelerator” framework where companies could purchase carbon offset credits by paying for renewables in developing countries. This could turn out really well, but experts are reserving judgment: carbon credit schemes have often turned into scams and the future of this one will heavily depend on a multitude yet-to-be-fleshed out details.
The closest thing to loss and damage funding we’ve yet seen is the newly announced Global Shield initiative, a Germany-led group (with a new financing facility from the World Bank) in which richer countries will help pay for insurance policies and social-security programs to help poorer countries recover from and prepare for climate disasters. So far, Germany has committed $175 million to Global Shield, while Denmark, Ireland, Canada, and France have together committed around $42 million more. That’s million, not billion, so this is a relatively small amount of money in global finance terms, but this platform could well grow into broader impacts if early disbursements are successful. Seven countries already hard-hit by climate change will receive the first batch of Global Shield funds: Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Fiji, Ghana, the Philippines, Senegal, and Pakistan (which as this newsletter reported was devastated by immense floods earlier this year).
“The Global Shield is long overdue. It has never been a question of who pays for [climate] loss and damage because we are paying for it – our economies pay for it in lost growth prospects, our enterprises pay for it in business disruption, and our communities pay for it in lives and livelihoods lost. We really hope the Global Shield will not only yield impact for the most vulnerable communities, but that it will also contribute to building mutual trust and understanding to help bridge the resourcing gaps facing climate action.”-Ken Ofori-Atta, Finance Minister of Ghana.
Climate Trace, a new startup backed by Al Gore, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and a lot of high-tech satellite imagery, released its flagship project at COP27: a first-ever map of over 75,000 of the biggest greenhouse gas emissions sources around the world, from oil and gas fields to fossil fuel power plants to landfills, industrial farm operations, cattle feedlots, airports, refineries, cement plants, and much more. This is an unprecedented level of granularity and specificity that will immensely help future emissions reduction efforts, making possible a new level of accountability. The world can now point to specific companies or governments and say “That specific building, right there? What you’re doing there is in violation of your international climate pledges and local air pollution laws. You need to stop, and we’ll know if you don’t.” Already, this tool has proven incredibly useful, providing empirical evidence that many oil and gas companies are drastically underreporting the emissions from their facilities. This is going to be a defining platform for the future of climate activism. Check out the map yourself at climatetrace.org/map!
“OPEC for Rainforests”
In a potentially very useful development, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, together home to 52% of Earth’s remaining tropical rainforest, are in talks to create an alliance to coordinate their conservation efforts, already nicknamed “OPEC for Rainforests.” This is another clear result of Lula’s election win over Bolsonaro in Brazil!
Indonesia Just Energy Transition Partnership
Over at the G20 summit in Indonesia (closely linked with COP27)3, a landmark deal has been struck in which richer countries will help coal-dependent Indonesia transition to clean energy. Indonesia has made new pledges to peak its power-sector carbon emissions at 290 megatons of CO2 by 2030, reach 34% renewable energy by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In return, an International Partners Group (led by the USA and Japan, also including Canada, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and the United Kingdom) have pledged to provide $10 billion from their public funds and work to coordinate an additional $10 billion in private sector funding from major banks in their countries, all to help Indonesia achieve a faster clean energy transition. As the money here will arrive through well-established financial mechanisms like grants, loans, and private investments, this could serve as a scalable model for aiding developing countries on climate issues, where a binding international loss and damage fund likely won’t fly. This is probably the most impactful news so far to come out of COP27. Awesome work!
“Indonesia is committed to using our energy transition to achieve a green economy and drive sustainable development. We are grateful for the cooperation and the support from our international partners to realize its full implementation that will accelerate this transition. This partnership will generate valuable lessons for the global community and can be replicated in other countries to help meet our shared climate goals through concrete collaborative actions.”-Indonesian President Joko Widodo. (Pictured above, with Biden).
“Indonesia has shown tremendous leadership and ambition throughout the development of this partnership. The resulting new and accelerated targets demonstrate how countries can dramatically cut emissions and increase renewable energy while advancing a commitment to creating quality jobs and protecting livelihoods and communities.”-US President Joe Biden.
It also means this writer keeps their job, as a Republican governor of Maine would likely have shut down Maine state climate initiatives. Not really global news, but pretty great personally!