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We’re reaching the endgame on the climate crisis, as news from both poles made clear this week. In the Antarctic, researchers reported first data from uncrewed submarine trips beneath the crucial Thwaites Glacier: “Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat.” (Thwaites was already known as the “doomsday glacier” because its collapse could raise global sea levels by as much as three feet.) Meanwhile, an analysis of satellite data suggests that, as Alaska and Siberia warm, summer lightning over the tundra could increase a hundred and fifty per cent by 2100, igniting fires in the vast peatlands. “Burning peat can release 2.5 to 3.5 kilograms (5.5 to 7.7 pounds) of carbon per square meter of ground,” a researcher told Inside Climate News. “That’s a lot, two or three times as much as from a fire in the savanna or the Mediterranean.” Translated from the scientific, these warnings mean that we’ve got no time left for half-measures. We’re in a desperate race against the destruction of the planet’s life-support systems. So nobody gets cut any slack.
For instance, it was a blow last week when the Army Corps of Engineers said that it would not seek to close down the Dakota Access Pipeline while a large-scale environmental review of the project continues. Having done the right thing on the Keystone Pipeline on Day One, the Biden Administration punted here—and so far it’s been silent on a similar fight over the Line 3 pipeline, in Minnesota. The announcement was the first sign of a lack of conviction from the White House on energy issues. Such reluctance is understandable: there’s a lot of money behind these projects. But one imagines that the warm currents eroding the Thwaites Glacier from beneath are unimpressed.
What’s true of government—that we need a full commitment from it—is true of business, too. Take the public-relations industry, increasingly the target of campaigners from groups such as Clean Creatives. (I’ve worked with its two principal members over the years.) As these groups have pushed, some ad agencies have decided to cut their ties with the fossil-fuel industry—last month, Forsman and Bodenfors, a major firm with offices in Sweden and New York, said that it was done working for oil and gas. “It’s about raising awareness in the broader creative community,” an executive told “The Energy Mix,” a newsletter. “So it becomes a topic in the same way tobacco became a topic. And now I don’t know a single person who would work on a tobacco account.”
Contrast that with the work of Edelman, one of the world’s storied public-relations firms (and the largest by revenue). The firm advised the company behind the Keystone Pipeline on similar projects, but in 2015—after four executives quit over the climate issue—the company said that it would no longer “accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.” As BuzzFeed News reported last month, however, tax filings show that, in recent years, Edelman has taken in at least twelve million dollars for its efforts on behalf of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, “a major U.S. oil trade organization that even Shell and BP had recently dumped for its aggressive opposition to popular climate solutions.” (A.F.P.M. poured money into a campaign against a Washington State carbon tax and has links to the front group Energy4US, which argued for Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks.)
Then, there is the work that Edelman has done for oil companies—which, on its face, seems innocuous, even charming. In 2017, on behalf of Shell, Edelman set up the South Pole Energy Challenge and outfitted the polar explorer Robert Swan with “renewable bio fuel” so that he could make a low-carbon dash to the bottom of the world. In the course of the journey, Edelman reported that it had produced “44 individual items of content,” including “humorous incidents such as trying to wash in -40ºC.” The purpose of this work was clear. As the firm explained on its Web site, “the company tasked Edelman with the job of giving millennials a reason to connect emotionally with Shell’s commitment to a sustainable future. We needed them to forget their prejudices about ‘big oil’ and think differently about Shell.” And the campaign succeeded, reaching six hundred million people “through earned media,” with “422 stories, all favorable and 92% of them including a mention of Shell,” which left audience members “31% more likely to believe Shell is committed to cleaner fuels.” Positive attitudes toward the brand, Edelman reported, increased by twelve per cent.
The problem here is that’s not an accurate representation of Shell. True, in a statement, the company said that it is accelerating a “drive for net-zero emissions with a customer-first strategy,” but added that “it is important to note that as of February 11, 2021, Shell’s operating plans and budgets do not reflect its Net-Zero Emissions targets. Shell’s aim is that, in the future, its operating plans and budgets will change to reflect this movement towards its new Net-Zero Emissions target. However, these plans and budgets need to be in step with the movement towards a Net Zero Emissions economy within society and among Shell’s customers.” In fact, Shell’s actual “plans and budgets” call for it to expand its liquid-natural-gas production capacity “by another 7m tonnes a year by the middle of the decade.” (Even the Wall Street Journal pointed out that this strategy was risky, both financially and reputationally. Contrast it with, say, BP’s pledge to cut oil and gas production by forty per cent by 2030.)
In that light, Edelman’s work to get millennials to “forget their prejudices” about Big Oil seems less charming. Swan did reach the South Pole on renewable biofuel, but the South Pole is under increasing attack from Shell’s main products. Repeated requests for a response from Edelman have failed. But, in 2015, after the four executives quit, a then top executive of the company explained that “when you are trying in some way to obfuscate the truth or use misinformation and half-truths that is what we would consider getting into the work of greenwashing, and that is something we would never propose or work we would support our client doing.” Experience would indicate there’s really no way to do that except to cut ties with Big Oil and its trade groups.
Passing the Mic
Anne Butterfield is working with the group Our Power to persuade the residents of Maine to swap their investor-owned utilities (I.O.U.s) for a publicly owned company that would be called the Pine Tree Power Company; in other places, such efforts have sometimes allowed for a quicker transition to renewable energy. Some Maine towns already have such public utilities, but most people in the state get their electricity from two big commercial firms. Butterfield worked on a similar campaign in Boulder, Colorado, before moving near Portland, Maine, where her house boasts seventy-two solar panels. (Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What’s the basic argument for a consumer-owned utility—how do you convince Mainers to go this route?
On average, Maine’s I.O.U.s charge consumers more than our state’s consumer-owned utilities (C.O.U.s). The I.O.U.s’ franchise is hurting Mainers with power outages, high rates, and confounding bills.
We see Mainers’ conviction about utilities through their reaction against the transmission corridor, slated to cut through our western forests, to profit out-of-state interests. The people of Maine are done with being a financial extraction zone and ready to oust big companies that hurt people and ship away loads of much-needed income.
Would the Pine Tree Power Company be more able to move quickly toward renewable electricity, or will the focus on price lead to inertia?
Maine policy already demands rapid expansion of renewables, to a hundred per cent of electricity supply by 2050. Progress to our ambitious clean-energy goals will surely go faster than by sticking with the I.O.U.s. But adding renewables isn’t the big news. What Our Power really brings is a future in which Mainers can trust in a more robust, affordable, and well-maintained grid, operated by people they elect. Trust, affordability, and reliability matter when you want people to confidently invest in E.V.s and erase up to fifty-four per cent of our state’s carbon emissions. [Maine’s emissions, like those of many rural states, are heavily transit-based, from cars and trucks.]
Mainers often pay well over five hundred dollars a month for their oil heat—which for many means energy poverty. Heat pumps in residential and commercial buildings could displace up to thirty per cent of our emissions. We need a better grid, plus a utility that helps Mainers with on-bill financing, which a C.O.U. can also offer.
Wind power has always been contentious in Maine, at least onshore. How would a C.O.U. allow easier progress?
Wind is already twenty-four per cent of Maine’s in-state generation. But there’s room for much more. The offshore potential is one of the best on the planet. Trust from communities is key to getting local permission to site transmission lines—and transmission is key to unlocking our offshore and northern onshore wind potential.
This may surprise you, but electric-power generation is the source of only about seven per cent of Maine’s emissions. The next big step is changing both supply and demand. E.V.s and heat pumps, for instance. The strengths of consumer ownership boil down to trust, reliability, and lower-cost financing. These are essential ingredients to any successful and equitable decarbonization.
Last week brought a powerful statement from a consortium of scholars in the field of genocide studies, arguing that we need to start thinking about the twenty-first-century climate crisis in some of the ways that we considered twentieth-century atrocities: “Until now, devastating man-made crises such as pandemics and environmental disasters were mostly left to the domain of the natural sciences. This is precisely what needs to change. . . . To that end, these issues must immediately move to the center of genocide studies entailing major revisions to university curricula, research priorities, and scholarly discourse.”
Kenneth Pucker, once the chief operating officer at Timberland, has a deft essay in the Harvard Business Review, arguing that the mere reporting of environmental impacts by companies is not resulting in a “more sustainable form of capitalism.” Measurement, he writes, “is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading. And headlines touting new milestones in disclosure and socially responsible investment are often just fanciful ‘greenwishing.’ ” In fact, he says, focussing on reporting can become “an obstacle to progress.” In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Auden Schendler, the senior vice-president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, offers a complementary critique of companies’ efforts at reducing their ecological footprint: “What the corporate sustainability movement has truly succeeded at is ensuring that everyone works within a narrowly defined playing field that leaves the one thing we need to upend—the fossil-fuel-based economy—intact and unthreatened.” In slightly better news, a team at the investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors reports that financial markets are doing a reasonable job of analyzing climate risk and pricing assets accordingly.