Five Just Stop Oil activists spray paint the wall and glue themselves to the frame of the painting the Last Supper on the July 5, 2022, Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images
Five Just Stop Oil activists spray paint the wall and glue themselves to the frame of the painting the Last Supper on the July 5, 2022, Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images

Increasingly bold climate protests are triggering a wave of harsh new laws in Western nations that aim to prevent the type of disruptive demonstrations experts say have long played an important role in healthy democracies.

From Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to British rule in India to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous civil rights marches in Jim Crow America, many of the freedoms people enjoy around the world today are owed in large part to social protest movements and civil disobedience. In recent demonstrations that have caught international attention—including climate activists splattering food onto the glass covers of famous artwork, letting the air out of SUV tires en masse and even shutting down airports in several different countries on the same day—protesters have pointed to those historical moments as both their motivation and justification for their actions.

Last week, climate activists dumped baking flour on a sports car painted by the famous U.S. pop artist Andy Warhol that is on display in Italy’s financial capital.

But as climate protesters adopt more radical tactics to highlight what they say is a world moving far too slowly to prevent catastrophic global warming in the coming decades, they’re being met with a slew of new anti-protest laws from policymakers who say the demonstrations are going too far.

In Britain, climate protests that have jammed highways and disrupted places of commerce have emboldened lawmakers to pass new legislation that gives police broad new powers to regulate demonstrations. That includes being able to dictate when a protest can take place and how loud it gets. The new law also threatens protesters who block highways with harsh new penalties, including up to six months in prison and unlimited fines. And lawmakers are also considering new legislation, known as The Public Order bill, which could extend those penalties to protesters who lock themselves onto construction sites or other places of business, as well as give police new powers to stop and search someone for a “protest-related” offense.

In Australia, lawmakers passed a new law in April that similarly increased penalties on protesters who disrupt economic activities, turning what was once a $400 maximum fine into a $15,000 one, with the possibility of serving up to two years in jail.

In the United States, too, protests that have been broadly tied to environmental, social and climate justice issues, such as demonstrations attempting to halt construction of major international oil and gas pipelines, have triggered new laws in more than a dozen states. In some of those cases, trespassing and “impeding” the operation of pipelines, power plants and other “critical infrastructure” can now lead to a felony conviction.

“Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the state,” Martha Spurrier, director of U.K.-based civil rights organization Liberty, said at a recent press event in reaction to the new anti-protest laws in Britain. “Our right to protest continues to be attacked by a government intent on making it harder for people to stand up for the causes they believe in.”

Proponents of the new laws say they’re necessary to prevent a “small minority of protesters” from causing significant disruptions to daily life, which they say can inflict serious economic losses on businesses and taxpayers and even put lives at risk. Last month, for example, German officials blamed at least one death in Berlin on activists after a climate protest delayed emergency responders trying to reach a traffic accident. Developers for Britain’s HS2 high-speed railway line have also claimed that protests against the project have increased its costs by about $145 million.

But human and civil rights groups say the laws pose a serious threat to free speech, which they call “an integral part of democracy.” And many of those laws now face legal challenges, including at least one lawsuit over Australia’s new anti-protest law that will be heard in front of the nation’s supreme court.

Many activists have also argued that they’ve had no choice but to adopt bolder tactics after their governments have failed for decades to adequately respond to the climate crisis, which scientists say is exacerbating natural disasters and food insecurity in many parts of the world and driving the extinction of plants and animals to levels not seen in the last 10 million years. Meanwhile, the world’s governments and financial institutions continue to fund new fossil fuel development at record levels.

In fact, as the pivotal COP27 global climate talks came to a close last week, some delegates expressed immense frustration that more wasn’t being done to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Without further intervention, climate experts say, the world will quickly overshoot the Paris Agreement target of limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Instead, they say, the planet remains on track to warm between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius by that time—a scenario that would bring about devastating ecological consequences in the coming decades, including far more deadly natural disasters and an accelerating mass extinction crisis.

Yet the most recent climate protests, especially ones including famous artwork, have sparked heated debate within the climate movement over what’s the “right” and “wrong” way to protest. While there’s plenty of research that suggests civil disobedience and confrontational protests are quite effective at spreading awareness of social movement causes, blocking specific projects and even normalizing social movements in the eyes of the public—a phenomenon sociologists call the “radical flank effect”—more recent research also suggests that disruptive protesting can be counterproductive.

A 2020 study found extreme protest actions can reduce the overall popularity of a social movement. A study released earlier this month that surveyed more than 1,300 people in Germany, where several of the climate protests targeting artwork have taken place, found that 83 percent of the respondents thought the demonstrations had gone too far. And another study published this month, conducted by renowned climatologist Michael Mann and University of Pennsylvania political scientist Shawn Patterson Jr., found that 46 percent of the public said they became less sympathetic to the aims of climate protesters after witnessing demonstrations involving famous artwork.

“I have devoted much of my time and effort over the past several decades to the cause of meaningful climate action” and “worried that events like this could harm the cause to which I (and so many) have devoted my life,” Mann wrote in a recent opinion essay for TIME Magazine, referencing the protest where two activists threw tomato soup on a Vincent van Gogh painting. “From a communications standpoint, the protest seemed like an even bigger mess than the soup-splattered painting.”

On Tuesday, two climate activists who had glued their hands to an 18th century frame containing a separate van Gogh painting, were also found guilty of causing criminal damage to it. The painting itself was unharmed.

Still, many climate activists have said they’ll continue participating in confrontational and disruptive protests until their governments do more to address the climate crisis, and urge their leaders to ban new development of fossil fuels. More than 2,000 activists have been arrested in the U.K. due to disruptive climate demonstrations, activists said, and as the COP27 climate talks wrapped up over the weekend, more than 30 protesters remained in jail for demonstrations that took place during the summit.

“Until they put the death sentence as the repercussions for what we’re doing, it won’t deter us,” Cameron Ford, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, one of the core groups coordinating the recent protests, told the Guardian last month. “Because the alternative to us not getting the change that we’re demanding is death.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate, thanks for reading. I’ll take a break from the newsletter this Friday to observe Thanksgiving and continue my ongoing search for the perfect pie. Look for me in your inbox next week—but before you go:


Hot Gossip

Record snowfall in upstate New York led to a surge of climate disinformation online, recirculating a long-debunked myth that global warming can’t be real if we’re getting more snow. This BBC journalist took the time to debunk the myth again.

And Republicans are expected to eliminate the House’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis when they retake power in the lower chamber next year. So what are they hoping to concentrate on instead? You may have guessed it: more oil and gas.

Today’s Indicator

15.1 billion

That’s how many metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions are expected to be released from coal-fired power plants worldwide this year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, putting 2022 on track to break the previous all-time record for coal emissions.

Oil and petrochemical refinery, Kaduna, Nigeria. Credit: Andrew Holt/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
Oil and petrochemical refinery, Kaduna, Nigeria. Credit: Andrew Holt/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Some came from Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Others traveled from Uganda and Mozambique. Believing this year would finally be the first “African COP,” activists from all across the Mother Continent trekked to Egypt this month to witness the historic event and represent their communities at the United Nations’ keystone global climate summit.

Many had hoped a deal would be struck on a global “loss and damage” fund through which rich nations would compensate poorer ones for the harms they face from climate change. They also hoped to see increased funding go toward new solar development across the sunshine-rich continent, which hosts 60 percent of the world’s best solar resources, according to the International Energy Agency.

What Africans encountered instead was Europe “wanting to turn Africa into its gas station,” Mohamed Adow, founding director of Power Shift Africa, a clean energy think tank based in Kenya, said while speaking on a COP27 panel last week. “We don’t have to follow the footsteps of the rich world that actually caused climate change in the first place.”

This year’s climate conference has been “African in name only,” Adow added during a separate U.N. event the following day.

Still reeling from the global energy crunch, caused in large part by the repercussions of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many European countries are turning to Africa in their search for alternative sources of oil and gas. Dozens of fossil fuel companies are eyeing potential new reserves in 45 African countries, including areas in Egypt’s Red Sea region, where the U.N. climate talks are wrapping up Friday. In fact, three deals that would deliver oil and gas produced in Egypt, Nigeria and Tanzania to European markets were announced during the last two weeks alone, all while COP27 was taking place.

Those announcements—combined with the fact that the summit’s delegates have yet to resolve major elements of the potential loss and damage agreement—has outraged African climate activists, including Adow, who say their countries are being left out of the global clean energy transition and worry they’ll soon be stuck with stranded assets as rich Western nations wean themselves off fossil fuels in the coming decades.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen African climate activists held a demonstration in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town where the summit is being hosted, loudly chanting “don’t gas Africa!” and “climate justice now!” through a megaphone. It was one of the few protests that managed to crop up at all inside the city amid Egypt’s heightened COP27 security measures—which many human rights groups have characterized as an authoritarian crackdown on political dissent.

But the role African nations should play in the global energy transition, and whether they should be allowed to build their economies around fossil fuels the way wealthy Western nations did before them, remains a complicated and hotly debated topic. Some 600 million Africans lack access to electricity today, with almost a billion relying on the burning of wood, kerosene or coal to cook, according to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook.

In that sense, building out their energy systems quickly, rather than addressing climate change, remains a top priority for many African nations. And many African energy ministers have argued that switching to renewable energy isn’t a viable option for them without far more help from the West.

“We are going to develop all of our energy resources for the benefit of our people because our issue is energy poverty,” Maggy Shino, Namibia’s petroleum commissioner, said last week at COP27. “If you are going to tell us to leave our resources in the ground, then you must be prepared to offer sufficient compensation, but I don’t think anyone has yet come out to make such an offer.”

African energy ministers have also argued that it’s unfair that they would be expected to transition to clean energy before they can build their own wealth using fossil fuels, considering how little their nations have contributed to global warming.

Rich Western nations, especially the United States and countries in Europe, are responsible for a whopping 80 percent of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. By comparison, the entire African continent contributed just 3 percent during that same time period.

Western countries also owe much of their historic wealth to fossil fuels and continue to generate billions in annual revenue by exporting them. And the leaders of many African countries argue that they, too, should be allowed to build wealth by tapping and selling their own reserves. In fact, some African nations, such as Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, are highly dependent on revenues from oil and gas production and could face real financial trouble if their ability to sell those products is constrained.

The European Union has also argued that fossil fuels should play a “transitional role” for African countries on their way to clean economies. But many African climate activists have called those arguments disingenuous, saying it’s Europe, not the African people, who will benefit most from efforts to boost oil and gas production across the continent.

“All projects coming to the continent are for exploitation. It’s very colonial,” Omar Elmawi, the executive director of the Kenya-based Muslims for Human Rights, told Insider. “Despite Africa’s renewable-energy potential, we’re not seeing investors or banks look at it as an opportunity. Africa is becoming a petrol station that feeds the interests of the Global North.”

Tapping new oil and gas reserves could ultimately trigger what economists have long called the “resource curse.” That’s when a country discovers a valuable resource like gold or oil, which should benefit its residents. But ultimately the discovery ends up harming the public by leading to increased conflict, corruption, poverty and poor health outcomes. Experts have even pointed to the poverty and corruption in Nigeria as a prime example of this trend.

Recent reports released by the African Climate Foundation also suggest that new fossil fuel development in Mozambique, Tanzania and other African nations will likely become a drain on public finances in the long term. Nations that invest too heavily in liquified natural gas extraction, for example, may find short term profit in today’s market, but could soon be left with few buyers and a glut of unsold gas as the cost of renewables continues to fall and Western countries accelerate their transition to those technologies.

African nations are also top candidates for solar development, IEA’s Africa Energy Outlook noted, suggesting that money currently being invested in new oil and gas operations might better be spent on solar projects. The report found that Africa has around “60 percent of the world’s best solar-energy resources, but only 1 percent of installed photovoltaic capacity.” 

EIA’s outlook also estimated that every African nation could provide its residents access to affordable energy with an annual investment of about $25 billion through 2030, so long as most of that money goes toward renewable projects. That’s the same amount of money needed to build just one liquified natural gas export terminal, the report noted.

For Adow, the choice couldn’t be simpler. He just hopes African leaders at the COP come to the same conclusion. “We must embrace renewables,” he said. “Let’s never ever accept the notion that in order to transition, we need to expand fossil fuels. I don’t want Africa left with the infrastructure of 100 years ago.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday—but before you go:


Hot Gossip

Activists and disinformation experts are chastising the United Nations for giving a platform to Njock Ayuk Eyong, the chairman of the African Energy Chamber, a pro-oil and gas trade group. Not only was Ayuk convicted of fraudulently obtaining U.S. visas and accused of laundering $2.5 million in Ghana, they said, but he was actively spreading climate misinformation online ahead of COP27 as part of his “drill baby drill” communications campaign at the global climate summit.

Plus, former U.S. President Donald Trump officially announced this week that he was running for president for the third time, taking the time on the campaign trail to ridicule efforts to tackle global warming and drastically mischaracterize climate science

“The Green New Deal and the environment, which they say may affect us in 300 years, is all that is talked about,” Trump said, grossly exaggerating the well-known timeline scientists have laid out in their climate impact studies. “They say the ocean will rise one-eighth of an inch over the next 200 to 300 years, but don’t worry about nuclear weapons that can take out entire countries.”

Today’s Indicator

80

That’s how many times more likely global warming made the floods that killed more than 800 people in Nigeria, Niger and Chad this summer and fall, according to  a new attribution study.

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan arrives to deliver a speech on the second day of the COP27 climate conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on Nov. 7, 2022. Credit: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan arrives to deliver a speech on the second day of the COP27 climate conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on Nov. 7, 2022. Credit: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—The slow pace of global climate talks is once again on display at COP27 this week and can be partially explained by a renewed blitz of climate disinformation, according to watchdog groups that analyze media ecosystems.

On Tuesday, the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition released a new analysis of efforts to undermine climate action and found that false and misleading claims made by right-wing media outlets about global warming and clean energy continue to affect public perception about the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry, the authors said, is riding that wave of disinformation into the climate talks to promote false solutions.

“Misinformation has sowed uncertainty and impeded the recognition of risk … and the rise of climate misinformation is undermining climate action here at COP27,” Jacob Dubbins, a coauthor of the new report, said here at a press conference.  

The report said that Fox News remains a significant source of false and misleading information about the climate crisis, fueling unfounded public skepticism in a way that could even inspire violence against policymakers who advocate for strong climate action.

The report included a scientific survey on the media consumption habits of thousands of people in six different countries: Brazil, Australia, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. It found that Americans, especially those who regularly watch Fox News, are the most likely among the study’s participants in all six countries to hold false beliefs about global warming.

People who watch Fox News at least five times a week, the survey found, were far more likely than the general public to believe a host of false climate narratives, including that renewable energy sources are unreliable and more expensive at generating electricity than fossil fuels and that the world’s science community is still debating the cause of global warming.

These “stark” findings, the report’s authors said, show that climate misinformation remains a rampant problem around the world and continues to be disproportionately spread by right-wing media. If more isn’t done to address the issue, they said, those false narratives will continue to hinder constructive debate, including at the United Nations’ COP27 global climate summit.

“The misconception around climate change is too widespread and significant to ignore,” Erika Seiber, a press officer with environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth and a spokesperson for the coalition that produced the report, said in an interview. “One quarter of Americans think that climate change is a hoax, a consistent and false talking point from Trump and the GOP. We can’t do much to address the climate crisis with this level of discrepancy over reality.”

Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of  the Conscious Advertising Network, an organization trying to ensure ethics in advertising and one of the groups behind the report, said at the COP27 press conference that the problem extends far beyond the U.S. 

“Climate disinformation is a global problem, and it is a huge problem for those of us who are supportive of, and working toward the kind of climate action that we need extremely rapidly now,” she said. “We have created an open letter with a series of asks that we think can play a huge role in solving this problem.” 

The letter was submitted to the COP27 presidency, country delegations, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the CEOs of major tech platforms. 

“We are on track for 2.8°C of global warming,” the letter said. “While emissions continue to rise, humanity faces climate catastrophe, yet vested economic and political interests continue to organize and finance climate misinformation and disinformation to hold back action.”

Addressing the issue in the final COP27 documents with language that acknowledges the threat of climate mis- and disinformation could create a positive cascade effect that would “incentivize tech platforms to embed this within their policy definitions,” Kingaby said.

Among the report’s most troubling findings was that a significant portion of the population across all six countries still believes that climate change isn’t being caused by humans, including nearly half of the 2,396 American participants. Of those survey respondents, false climate beliefs were even more prevalent among those who regularly watch Fox News.

Specifically, 59 percent of Fox News consumers believe that a significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change, compared to just 35 percent of the broader U.S. sample. Additionally, 56 percent of Fox viewers think renewable energy is more expensive than energy from fossil fuels, compared to 34 percent of the bigger sample. And 60 percent of respondents who watch Fox say that renewables are unreliable energy sources, compared to 32 percent of the American sample as a whole.

Regular Fox viewers were also far more likely to believe that natural gas is needed to reduce climate-warming emissions, with 57 percent of those respondents agreeing with that premise, compared to 38 percent of overall U.S. respondents.

Those beliefs contradict what the vast majority of climate scientists have said in recent reports, including the latest major assessment from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A staggering 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed studies on global warming conclude that climate change is real and that humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels and clearing land for agriculture.

Additionally, improvements in long-life batteries have made renewable energy sources just as reliable as fossil fuel power plants, if not more reliable in some instances, many experts say. And solar is now the cheapest form of energy in history, according to the nonpartisan International Energy Agency, which has also said that all new fossil fuel development, including natural gas production, must immediately halt to achieve global climate goals.

The findings of Tuesday’s survey add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the prevalence of climate falsehoods perpetuated by Fox News and other conservative media outlets have serious impacts on public opinion when it comes to climate change.

At the COP press conference, Jennie King, head of civic action and education with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that a recent surge in climate disinformation is likely linked with dramatic world events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

King, who is at COP27 to monitor climate information, said those events resulted in “major shifts in the information landscape … when it comes to trying to support climate action, by shifting the dynamics across social media platforms, both mainstream and fringe, and also mainstream media.”

The pandemic and the Russian aggression “turbocharged the disinformation ecosystem” and acted as a crucible for a number of conspiracies, movements and grievance politics movements to converge under one umbrella,” she said. “During that time, we saw the growth of a number of new conspiracies surrounding climate change, linking  grievances or outrage around the public health response to the pandemic with a push back on environmentalism.”

That included conspiracies like a “climate lockdown, which claimed that the pandemic was manufactured as a pretext to implement a more insidious green agenda going forward,” she said. The Russian invasion also fueled a number of actors who “were already very vested in maintaining the status quo; maintaining reliance on fossil fuels, and preventing decarbonisation, or net zero transitions.”

“On that basis,” she said, “we have seen argumentation which suggests the idea that Putin was emboldened to invade Ukraine because of the West’s fixation on net zero agendas, and that it is our obsession with the Paris Agreement that is allowing conflicts like this to occur.”

The disruptions to supply chains and increased fuel and food prices also fed the fires of disinformation, she added. 

“There has been an incredible effort by disinformation actors to frame that situation as the fault of green levies and other net zero policies,” she said. Those actors have leveraged those concerns to try and make people believe that price increases and other economic impacts are caused by policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, she added.

The next step in the climate disinformation campaigns is to try and get people to believe “that the climate agenda is dead, that people can’t afford it and that it’s going to bankrupt hardworking people,” she said. The subsequent message from the disinformation campaigns is to tell people that it is essential right now to maintain reliance on polluting technologies like oil and gas, she added.

“I think for our coalition, this has been extremely concerning, and in some way surprising, because up until this year, denialism still existed, but it had been pushed more to the periphery,” she said. “We were seeing delay-ism, or subtler forms of disinformation, but now we are seeing that out and out denial is making an absolute comeback.”

Using the uncertainty of the times, the voices of denial have become emboldened to frame their agenda in a broader anti-elitist context, particularly targeting institutions like the  World Economic Forum, which aren’t particularly liked or trusted to begin with. 

“The final thing I wanted to mention is a renewed energy and investment in fossil fuel greenwashing, being pushed  very heavily by the fossil fuel lobby, which we’ve seen here at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh,” she said, noting the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists and other representatives at the climate conference. “In particular, the African gas lobby has been very vocal in making the suggestion that net zero transitions are a form of neocolonialism or Western imperialism, and that maintaining the use of fossil fuels is essential to human rights.”

There are the recent reports out by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, as well as from the University of Exeter, showing that fossil fuel companies are spending millions of dollars to run as many as 850 ads a day and getting tens of millions of views “that aim to confuse the public about what are viable climate solutions going forward,” she said.

Above all, they are trying to create the impression “that companies whose investment portfolios are almost entirely grounded in oil and gas, are somehow climate champions, and are going to lead the charge on a netzero transition.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate. I’ll be back in your inbox Friday, but before you go—some important updates:


Corrections: 

Last Friday’s newsletter incorrectly listed the nations donating to the global loss and damage fund. It has been updated to reflect that Austria pledged about $50 million.


Hot Gossip:

From those attending COP27, Inside Climate News still wants to hear about your experience and what you hope can still be accomplished in the summit’s remaining days. You can reach us here, and for sensitive tips, learn how you can keep your message confidential and secure here.

Finally, ongoing protests that involve priceless works of art continue to generate controversy within the climate community over what’s the “right” and “wrong” way to protest. But what about changing your name? Actor Rainn Wilson, famous for his role as Dwight Schrute on the hit sitcom “The Office,” has changed his name to “Rainnfall Heat Wave Rising Sea Levels Wilson” to raise awareness on climate change, though it’s unclear if he intends to make the change legal.

Today’s Indicator

40.6 billion

That’s how many metric tons of carbon dioxide are expected to be released into the atmosphere by the end of the year, according to a new analysis, breaking the global record in 2019 and leaving a 50 percent chance the planet will warm an average of 1.5 degree Celsius in just nine years.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Implementation Summit (SCIS) of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on Nov. 8, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Implementation Summit (SCIS) of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on Nov. 8, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Correction: A previous version of this newsletter incorrectly listed the nations donating to the global loss and damage fund. It has been updated to reflect that Austria pledged about $50 million.

After decades of delays, excuses and outright resistance, a small but growing number of wealthy European countries have committed to paying direct aid to developing nations to help them deal with the climate crisis, which burdens them disproportionately even though they had little to do with causing it.

Delegates at COP27 will officially discuss for the first time the creation of a global fund for “loss and damage”—the idea that rich nations are largely responsible for causing global warming and therefore owe a financial debt to poorer countries struggling to deal with the costs of worsening drought, storms and other climate-fueled disasters.

For 30 years, developing countries—predominantly in the Global South—have called for such a fund and been met with resistance. But this week, several European countries committed to begin paying that debt with cash, signaling a notable shift in the decadeslong fight and marking one of the most surprising developments so far this year at the United Nations’ cornerstone climate summit.

“The COP must make progress on minimizing and averting loss and damage from climate change,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during her Tuesday speech at the conference in Egypt, during which she encouraged other world leaders to also support the loss and damage fund. “It is high time to put this on the agenda.”

As of Friday morning, Germany has pledged $170 million for the fund, while Austria has pledged about $50 million, Ireland has pledged $10 million and Belgium has promised $2.5 million. Scotland—which pledged $2.2 million to the cause when it hosted COP26 last year—increased that commitment this week by an additional $5.7 million. And in September, Denmark promised $13 million to the effort.

The announcements, however, were met with mixed reactions from climate activists and world leaders living in some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable places, including Pakistan, which suffered deadly and historic flooding this year that left a third of the country underwater for months.

At just over $250 million, the recent commitments fall drastically short of the $200 billion in annual funding for “climate reparations” that the U.N. says is needed this decade alone to adequately address the issue.  It also falls far below the $100 billion in annual international climate spending that the world’s wealthiest nations previously promised in a similar 2009 U.N. agreement, but have failed so far to deliver.

Two of the most significant carbon emitters, the United States and China, were also notably absent from the slew of announcements. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. has produced roughly a quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, making it by far the most significant overall contributor to the climate crisis, according to 2020 data from the Union of Concerned Scientists. And in the short span of China’s industrial boom, it quickly became the second leading historical contributor, responsible for 14 percent of total emissions.

Rather than committing federal dollars directly, the U.S. announced this week that it was launching a global carbon market as soon as next year, saying it would help raise money for developing countries by selling so-called “carbon credits” to companies that want to offset their emissions. Switzerland, too, announced a similar plan to leverage money raised through carbon credits to pay for its climate commitments. And China said it would be willing to participate in a global carbon market scheme once it’s up and running.

Carbon markets are financial schemes that allow a participant to pay other people to reduce their emissions rather than the participant reducing its own emissions. For example, Company A could pay Company B to plant trees or upgrade their buildings to make them more energy efficient, which in theory will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. But Company A isn’t necessarily reducing its own emissions—it’s paying other companies to reduce theirs.

But carbon markets, along with other voluntary market-based solutions that rely on incentives, not regulation, to reduce emissions, have long been a source of controversy in the climate community. It’s not surprising, then, that the U.S. announcement this week was met by fierce backlash from environmental advocates who say carbon markets rarely deliver the climate benefits they promise, suffer from poor management and regulation and delay meaningful efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promising to address the issue in the future. Rather, advocates say, that money should be spent on proven climate solutions, such as building new renewable energy sources.

Take California, for example, which runs one of the world’s largest carbon markets. Instead of reducing their own emissions, companies participating in the state’s carbon market—including major conglomerates like Microsoft—have poured billions of dollars into projects that planted trees. But even though an estimated 153,000 acres of forests that were part of the state’s carbon market burned in wildfires last summer, the companies can still claim those forests for credits in the program.

In fact, just a day prior to the U.S. announcement this week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned delegates not to rely on carbon markets to achieve their climate goals. 

“The absence of standards, regulations and rigor in voluntary carbon market credits is deeply concerning,” Gutteres said in a speech Tuesday. “Shadow markets for carbon credits cannot undermine genuine emission reduction efforts, including in the short term. Targets must be reached through real emissions cuts.”

On Thursday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry defended the carbon market plan, saying there was “not enough money in any country in the world to actually solve this problem.”

Quickly evolving geopolitics, high inflation and soaring energy prices have prompted many governments to backtrack on climate pledges in recent months. On Friday, President Joe Biden touted U.S. efforts to help adaptation efforts in Africa, but refrained from mentioning the new carbon market plan. The U.S. initially pledged $11 billion to help developing nations, but a divided U.S. government only approved $1 billion this year for that effort—an issue that’s largely out of Biden’s hands.

“We desperately need money,” Kerry told CNN. “It takes trillions and no government that I know of is ready to put trillions into this on an annual basis.”

But debate over who should pay—and how—when it comes to dealing with the costs of climate change remains fiercely undecided. And many climate activists see this week’s U.S. proposal as the latest evidence that COP27 has been co-opted and compromised by corporate interests. Activists have chastised the summit’s organizers for allowing one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters to sponsor the conference, as well as hiring a global public relations firm that also represents major oil companies as clients.

Still, excluding corporations from COP27, even those that are greenwashing their images, would be a bad idea, said Michael Vandenbergh, a law professor and the director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Climate Change Research Network. In many ways, he told me in an interview, buy-in and cooperation from the private sector is vital for the larger international effort to be successful.

Vandenbergh, who conducts research on the private sector’s role in combating climate change, said companies are failing to meet their climate goals at the same rates as countries and cities, so exiling them now would only hurt the broader effort. Instead, he said, people should focus on reducing greenwashing and holding companies accountable to their promises.

“Climate change poses an urgent, major threat, so all options, including private sector action, should be on the table,” Vandenbergh said. “It is true that, as a globe, we are not meeting the Paris Agreement terms, but that is not a reason to give up hope or to abandon smart strategies.”

Today’s Indicator

393 million

That’s how many metric tons of carbon dioxide are released every single year from the investments of just 125 of the world’s billionaires, a new study found. That’s a million times more than what’s emitted by the average person.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi speaks during the COP27 climate conference on Nov. 7, 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi speaks during the COP27 climate conference on Nov. 7, 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Egypt’s official COP27 app poses a “credible” threat “at the highest level” to any mobile device that downloaded it, a coalition of cybersecurity and disinformation experts warned early Tuesday morning. 

The app has been marketed by COP officials as a way for delegates and other conference attendees to navigate the United Nation’s two-week global climate summit by providing a calendar of the events, routes for local public transit and other services. According to the Google Play Store, more than 5,000 people have downloaded the app so far.

But the program requires access to a slew of private and potentially compromising information, including a user’s GPS location, photos, emails and even passport number, the Guardian reported Sunday. And cybersecurity experts warned that the data could be used to track protesters and help Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime further crackdown on political dissent in Egypt, which has already detained some 65,000 political prisoners. 

On Tuesday, the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition, a group of more than 30 disinformation watchdog and environmental organizations from around the world, released its own assessment that reaffirmed those concerns, telling anyone who downloads the app to exercise “extreme caution.”

“There is credible reason to believe the app compromises a device at the highest level,” the coalition wrote in a Tuesday press release. “Having spoken to those involved, this appears to include ‘hot-mic-ing’ a user’s phone—essentially co-opting the microphone, camera and GPS system for surveillance—as well as permissions for screen recording, attempts to access stored mailboxes and ‘root access.’”

It’s unclear if deleting the app or even resetting a phone’s original factory settings will resolve the security threat, the coalition said, adding that anyone who already downloaded the app should be wary of their communications possibly being monitored.

Protests are commonplace at United Nations climate talks and offer alternative channels for activists and other nongovernmental organizations to voice their concerns and demands to decision makers. But Egypt’s military is heavily patrolling this year’s conference, which started Sunday, and the government has limited demonstrations to a designated zone far from Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort city where COP27 is being held.

Egyptian authorities are also being criticized for cracking down on any dissent during COP, a move that many observers say tracks with the country’s long history of repressing political opposition.

Human and civil rights activists, as well as Egyptian citizens critical of their government, say they’ve been subjected to targeted surveillance by government authorities since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 and 2011, when thousands of citizens of countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East participated in massive pro-democracy protests—including in Egypt. Many Western onlookers who watched the uprisings on social media believed the protests would result in a new era of free elections in a region historically dominated by dictatorships. But those hopes were mostly dashed by brutal government responses and calculated power grabs.

In Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi rose to power when he was elected president in 2014, following a messy and violent string of events sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings. They included the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the nation’s authoritarian president, as well as a 2013 military coup led by al-Sisi, a former Egyptian general, against the then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. Since his election, however, al-Sisi’s administration has consolidated power in the same manners of the former regimes, often using strong-arm tactics to repress political opposition.

Groups working to advance human, civil and political rights in Egypt have reported “ongoing and extensive” campaigns to monitor their activities. Recent incidents include a widespread phishing campaign that targeted civil-society groups in 2017 and the phone hacking of a prominent political opposition figure last year while he was living outside the country.

Last month, an Egyptian organizer with Human Rights Watch accused al-Sisi of “mass spying on everyone,” after a government official bragged on local television about the installation of surveillance cameras in some 500 taxis operating in Sharm el-Sheikh.

In fact, organizers of the global climate summit have faced widespread criticism from human rights groups in the days leading up to the conference, as more evidence of Egypt’s crackdown on protests emerged. The groups are accusing the government of arbitrarily detaining protesters and setting up security checkpoints in the nation’s capital of Cairo, where authorities force people to hand over their phones to check for evidence of planned protests.

As of last Wednesday, at least 93 people had been arrested in Egypt, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. The human rights nonprofit also said that some protesters were charged with abuse of social media, spreading false news and joining terrorist organizations—which the nonprofit says are baseless charges commonly used by the government against activists to repress political opposition.

In many ways, the treatment of protesters at COP27 contradicts the spirit and goals of the global summit, climate activists have said. While wealthy corporations are being placed in the spotlight this year—including the Biden administration preparing to unveil a plan for private companies to take a leading role in climate action decided at the summit—grassroots organizers have largely found themselves unable to gain access to the conference.

Many activists, especially from poorer nations, say that Egyptian authorities haven’t given them a fair chance to apply for accreditation to attend this year’s summit. And the event’s extreme security measures—which, in addition to the expansive security checkpoints, also include concrete and wire barriers—are making it impossible for many civil-society groups to express their demands in person or hold delegates accountable for the decisions they make during the talks.

The situation could be viewed as particularly problematic in terms of the summit’s optics. As my colleague Zoha Tunio reported today, this year’s COP will, for the first time, officially address the topic of climate reparations—the idea that wealthy nations historically responsible for causing the climate crisis owe a financial debt to developing countries that disproportionately bear its consequences. 

But those official talks about reparations won’t address which countries are responsible for the cost of climate “loss and damage” or who, exactly, should front the bill. And some individuals who offer compelling cases for reparations may not have a seat at the negotiating table at all.

Ugandan youth activist Nyombi Morris, who—like 400 of his neighbors—lost his home in 2008 to devastating flash floods, was met with bitter disappointment this week when he arrived in Egypt only to learn that he wouldn’t be allowed into the summit and he could face arrest and serious criminal charges if he attended any rallies “to ask for compensation for” his mother’s farm and his community.

“I was so happy when they announced that COP would be in Africa. I thought maybe I would get a chance to be at the room where the negotiations are taking place,” the 24-year-old activist told the French television news network France 24. “When they started asking about our locations, where we will be staying, our passports, our names, we were worried.”

“It will not be easy for us to continue with our plan,” he said.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.


Do you have your own COP27 story you’d like to share? Maybe you failed to get into the summit or experienced surveillance and intimidation yourself. Or maybe you just have a tip. Whatever it may be, Inside Climate News wants to hear from you, and we offer secure channels to reach us. Tell us your story.

Today’s Indicator

$1 billion

That’s how much federal funding Congress approved this year to go toward helping developing nations adapt to the worsening impacts of climate change. That falls far short of the $11.4 billion figure the Biden administration promised last year for those efforts.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of the production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022 in Gruenheide, Germany. Patrick Pleul / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of the production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022 in Gruenheide, Germany. Patrick Pleul / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Less than a week after Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion, the tech billionaire became embroiled in a series of scandals on his own platform. They included a spike in the use of hate speech on the website and Musk himself posting a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. 

The scandals have prompted dire warnings from disinformation experts and environmental advocates, who say the popular social media platform plays an outsized role in the spread of falsehoods that are muddying healthy public debate and sowing division ahead of the consequential U.S. midterm elections and COP27 global climate talks.

Musk, the founder of Tesla and a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” sought to quell fears that false and misleading information would spread more freely on Twitter under his leadership, promising to advertisers in an Oct. 27 tweet that the platform would not become a “free-for-all hellscape.”

But hate speech surged on the site in the days immediately following Musk’s acquisition, compelling Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, to address the issue publicly in a tweet. Mentions of the n-word skyrocketed 500 percent in just the first 12 hours, one analysis found. And a study by Montclaire State University found that, during that same timespan, homophobic, antisemitic and racial hate-driven terms posted on the site quadrupled from 84 posts an hour in the week before Musk’s takeover to 398 posts an hour after the purchase.

Musk found himself in yet another scandal a few days later when he shared an article on Twitter that made unsubstantiated claims that Paul Pelosi was drunk and fighting with a male escort on the night he was viciously attacked in his home with a hammer and sent to the hospital with a serious head injury. Police testimony and posts by the attacker online presented a very different story—one where a Canadian citizen, politically motivated by right-wing conspiracy theories, broke into the Pelosi home to kidnap the House Speaker.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote in the Oct. 30 tweet, sharing the false story. Musk deleted the post later that day amid strong public backlash, but not before it was shared more than 16,000 times, with over 76,000 likes. 

To many disinformation experts, the moment presented the clearest sign to date that Musk’s takeover of Twitter was a serious threat to the global effort to curb the spread of lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories online, making it difficult for world governments to maintain healthy democracies and build consensus around shared international challenges like combating the climate crisis.

“Musk’s promises in no way accurately portray his plans for Twitter, nor are they a reflection of the evolving reality of the platform as it transforms by the minute,” a coalition of more than 40 civil-society groups wrote Tuesday in a letter to Twitter’s top 20 U.S. advertising partners, urging them to use their influence to ensure the social media site maintains strong community standards and content moderation practices.

“Not only are extremists celebrating Musk’s takeover of Twitter, they are seeing it as a new opportunity to post the most abusive, harassing and racist language and imagery,” the groups wrote to the companies, which included Amazon, Coca-Cola and HBO. “We know that brand safety is of the utmost importance to you. As such, you also have a moral and civic obligation to take a stand against the degradation of one of the world’s most influential communications platforms, and to hold Musk to the pledge he made to you to ensure that Twitter is a welcoming and civil place for everyone.”

The issue, however, goes well beyond Musk’s foray into social network ownership.

Pretty much every major tech company has promised in recent years to crack down on the spread of false and misleading information on their platforms amid mounting public scrutiny, as well as a burgeoning legal framework led by the European Union that seeks to hold Big Tech accountable for the content posted online. But despite those efforts, a growing body of evidence suggests the problem has only become worse over the years, especially when it comes to accurate information on climate change.

Research published this summer found that falsehoods about global warming continue to flourish on social media sites and are often framed through the lens of Western culture wars, placing climate change alongside other hot button topics like gay and transgender rights and gun control. A separate analysis released last month found “a sprawling online network” of Spanish speakers on Twitter, TikTok and other major social platforms who “consistently amplify” climate misinformation and other right-wing conspiracy theories. 

And another October report found that an array of online advertisers, most notably Google Ads and Yahoo Ads, have been spreading climate disinformation over the last year to potentially tens of millions of internet users every week by promoting paid content from some of the most prolific online publishers of global warming falsehoods, including Breitbart, Fox News and Epoch Times. Google alone, the report said, likely made around $7.67 million from those ads.

“We can’t solve the climate crisis if Google continues to enable and fund the sites that expose millions of people to climate denial,” Erika Seiber, a spokesperson from the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said in a press release announcing the October report. 

In an email interview with Seiber, she told me that Musk’s recent scandals have been particularly worrisome. And with U.S. midterm elections happening next week and COP27 beginning Sunday, she said, their coalition of watchdog and environmental groups will be monitoring the platform closely for spikes in disinformation in the coming days and weeks. 

“Musk claims he wants an open debate, but he bullies activists and politicians who disagree with him,” Seiber told me. “Governments and advertisers must hold him accountable and prevent him from creating an explosion of hate speech, extremist conspiracies and climate disinformation.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$200 billion

That’s how much money developing nations would need on average every year, for the remainder of the decade, to adequately manage the widespread and devastating impacts of climate change, a new U.N. report says. That’s double what wealthy countries have promised, and failed, to provide.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on oil company profits in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on October 31, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden is calling for a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies as major producers including Exxon Mobil and Chevron approach record profits in the third quarter. Biden was joined by Treasury Secretary Janey Yellen (L) and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on oil company profits in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on October 31, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden is calling for a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies as major producers including Exxon Mobil and Chevron approach record profits in the third quarter. Biden was joined by Treasury Secretary Janey Yellen (L) and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Monday threatened to pursue new legislation that would tax the windfall profits made by fossil fuel companies this year if they don’t ramp up production to help bring down the historically-high energy costs being felt by everyday Americans.

While Biden’s announcement primarily took aim at inflation, which polls suggest is the biggest issue threatening Democrats in the next week’s midterm elections, activists have long called on taxing the fossil fuel industry to help pay for efforts to address climate change, close environmental justice disparities and accelerate the clean energy transition.

Annual inflation in the United States remains near a 40-year high, hitting 8.2 percent last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And economists broadly agree that the Russian war in Ukraine, which has upended global energy geopolitics, continues to play an outsized role in the historic inflation plaguing much of the world.

That has translated to higher prices on any number of goods and services for Americans, who have struggled with exorbitantly expensive gasoline in recent months. While the national average for a gallon of gas has fallen to $3.76, back in June it hit a record-high of $5.01 per gallon, according to AAA.

But while customers have suffered at the pumps, the biggest oil companies in the world are reaping windfall profits this year. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and TotalEnergy have together earned more than $100 billion in profits so far this year. That’s more than they earned all of last year, and nearly triple what they earned during the same period in 2021. Last quarter alone, Exxon reported $19.7 billion in earnings.

“It’s time for these companies to stop war profiteering, meet their responsibilities in this country and give the American people a break,” Biden said at the Monday press conference. “Oil companies’ record profits today are not because of doing something new or innovative—their profits are a windfall of war, a windfall for the brutal conflict that’s ravaging Ukraine and hurting tens of millions of people around the globe.”

Democrats would need to keep their congressional majorities this November to have a fighting chance of passing a new tax law. Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups were quick to denounce Biden’s announcement, accusing the administration of playing politics ahead of the elections and jeopardizing the country’s energy future.

But progressives and environmentalists praised Biden for the move, accusing Big Oil of gouging working Americans at the pump while lining the pockets of their investors. That includes many leading climate groups, which have argued for years that oil and gas companies should pay the costs of dealing with human-caused global warming because their products are the primary driver of it.

“We’re thrilled to hear President Biden’s support for a Windfall Profits Tax to hold oil and gas companies accountable,” Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement. “This is what Democrats should have been championing all year.”

A “windfall tax” is when a government targets a certain industry—say because they cause significant pollution—then taxes it when profits exceed the industry’s annual average. The government would then use that money for initiatives that benefit the greater good, such as implementing programs that clean up water or air pollution caused by the industry. When applied specifically to polluting industries, such as in this case, it can also be called a “polluters pay tax.”

Many activists and other climate-conscious lawmakers have argued for years that a polluters pay tax would be one of the most efficient and effective ways to tackle the climate crisis. The Biden administration included such a tax in the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year, which will help pay for cleanup efforts of toxic Superfund sites that are seriously backlogged because of years of underfunding. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen also proposed legislation earlier this year that would tax Exxon, Chevron and a handful of other major oil and gas companies to pay for damages and other costs associated with floods, wildfires and other natural disasters that scientists have linked to rising greenhouse gas emissions. 

That legislation, which has the support of progressive lawmakers—including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—would raise an estimated $500 billion over 10 years, proponents said. It’s unclear if that bill would be linked at all to Biden’s proposal on Monday.

Discussions about polluters pay taxes will also likely make an appearance at next week’s COP27 global climate talks, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. While the world’s wealthiest nations are largely responsible for causing the climate crisis, it’s mostly poor, developing countries that are suffering the worst of its consequences. Addressing that topic is expected to be a top priority during the talks, as my colleague Marianne Lavelle reported.

A study published earlier this year by Dartmouth College, for example, concluded that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions alone cost the world more than $1.9 trillion in climate-related damages between 1990 and 2014. Emissions from four other top emitters—China, Russia, India and Brazil—caused an additional $4.1 trillion, it said, and altogether the five countries caused losses equal to roughly 11 percent of annual global GDP.

“A just transition means leaving no person or country behind,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during a separate climate conference held in New York City back in September. “It is high time to put fossil fuel producers, investors and enablers on notice.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

71 percent

That’s how much of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be attributed to just 100 fossil fuel companies, according to a 2017 report from CDP, a nonprofit that works with companies and investors on disclosing their environmental impacts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

It hasn’t been a great year for democracy.

In February, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ironfisted leader, shocked the world by invading Ukraine, which sparked a global energy crisis and left Western democracies scrambling to respond. Weeks later in April, strongman politician Viktor Orbán was reelected as the president of Hungary, despite being accused of rigging the election and using his power to jail and intimidate journalists. 

Soon after, far-right leaders with neo-facist roots were also elected into power in the Philippines and Italy, prompting warnings from civil liberties advocates and surprising political analysts who have expressed concerns in recent years that liberal democracy around the world is in decline.

Many have since reiterated those fears after Chinese President Xi Jinping secured his third term over the weekend, solidifying his rule for several more years and further shifting the country away from the shared power system it had moved toward in recent decades. And this Sunday, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro—who has long been accused of human rights abuses and authoritarianism—will face a contentious reelection that could ultimately decide the direction of a country that houses one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks: the Amazon rainforest.

Experts have been sounding the alarm over the decline of democracy for years, saying the world appears to be entering a new era of strongman politics that jeopardizes global cooperation on efforts such as fighting the climate crisis. A growing number of countries—even those supposedly run by free democratic elections—are embracing authoritarianism over civil liberties and democratic rule, they warn. And recent research shows that autocratic leaders have managed to strengthen their positions in recent years by continuing to restrict the rights and freedoms of their citizens.

A report released in February by Freedom House, a pro-democracy advocacy group, found that 60 countries suffered democratic declines in 2021, while only 25 improved, and that only 20 percent of the world’s population currently lives in countries the organization designated as “free.”

Former President Barack Obama, too, warned of the trend in 2018 during a high-profile speech at a memorial event for civil liberties icon Nelson Mandella, which took place the day after a controversial meeting between then-U.S.-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The politics of fear and resentment” is “on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” Obama told a crowd of thousands in South Africa. “I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around—strongman politics are ascendant suddenly.”

In fact, the global divide between democracies and autocracies has only grown more stark in recent years, threatening many efforts to address shared global challenges, said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Problem of Democracy,” which talks in part about the growing popularity of modern autocratic leaders.

“With the rise of existential politics—where elections come to be seen as a matter of life and death—it is also the case that voters are less focused on long-term challenges and much more focused on short-term survival,” Hamid told me in an email. “Of course, the irony is that climate change is itself a potentially existential threat.”

Hamid also noted that having a democracy doesn’t necessarily translate to the adoption of strong climate policies, especially if voters don’t agree that global warming is an important issue. 

But research has found that democracies consistently perform better than autocracies when it comes to committing to policies to mitigate climate change. And, in many ways, autocrats have played a big role in the false and misleading climate information that continues to run rampant online—an issue many experts say is at the heart of public disagreement on the issue. 

While modern technology has helped citizens to fight corruption and spread democratic ideals, it has also been a major tool for autocratic regimes to maintain power, Ian Bremmer, founding president of the political consulting firm Eurasia Group and a political science lecturer at Columbia University, said in a 2018 opinion essay for TIME Magazine.

“Western leaders believed social networks would create ‘people power,’ enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson,” Bremmer wrote. “They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.”

Now, just days before the U.S. midterm elections and the highly-anticipated COP27 global climate summit in Egypt, the impacts of strongman politics on international climate efforts is clearly playing out in major ways.

In the United States, vastly different views of climate change by the two main political parties has led to a contentious midterm election that many analysts say will have lasting consequences for both the U.S. and global efforts to rein in emissions. Republicans continue to oppose any meaningful U.S. climate policy. And as the party attempts to retake control of Congress next month, many political experts have expressed deep concerns over Republican candidates adopting classic strongman tactics—such as muddying public discourse by repeatedly claiming falsehoods without evidence.

A new analysis by the political news site FiveThirtyEight found that a staggering 60 percent of Americans will see at least one candidate on their midterm ballot next month who in some way denies the results of the U.S. 2020 presidential election, perpetuating former President Donald Trump’s lie that it was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud.

At a global level, disagreements over human rights abuses and civil liberties have led to an increasingly cold relationship between the U.S. and China, derailing talks over the summer between two of the most climate-polluting countries over how they can more effectively reduce their carbon footprints. Brazil President Bolsonaro has also angered world leaders and environmentalists after his repeated failures to follow through on promises to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. And Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many Western nations, including the U.S., to reverse several of their climate commitments as they struggled to wean themselves off ubiquitous Russian fossil fuels.

Such deteriorating relationships have ripple effects, too. On Thursday, Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, announced he wouldn’t be attending next month’s COP27 climate talks due to “other pressing domestic commitments.” Among them, the country faces a number of financial crises that have been exacerbated by Russia’s self-serving war in Ukraine—the latest example, perhaps, of how isolationism can spur other nations to turn inward in a self-perpetuating cycle.

The announcement, which received harsh rebuke from environmental groups, can be viewed in an even more troubling light, given the pair of grim reports released by the United Nations this week that found global efforts to curb rising carbon emissions have been “woefully inadequate.” Just 26 of the accord’s 193 signatory countries have followed through with their promise to adopt more ambitious climate targets before November’s summit in Egypt, one UN report found. A second UN report found that the three primary greenhouse gases driving climate change—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—all hit record levels last year. 

Without stronger intervention, the world will warm by an average of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by the end of the century, the reports’ authors said, calling their findings an “ominous” sign that nations are turning inward to focus on short-term national interests at the expense of long-term global climate ambitions. And both reports come as the fossil fuel industry continues to post record-breaking profits, yet another indicator that international climate efforts simply aren’t cutting it.

“Global and national climate commitments are falling pitifully short,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday after the reports were released. “We are headed for a global catastrophe.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

62 percent

That’s the percent of Americans who say the U.S. government is not doing enough to fight climate change, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll also found a stark difference in opinion between Democrats and Republicans.

Bottles of Coca-Cola are pictured in north London, on April 27, 2018. Credit: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
Bottles of Coca-Cola are pictured in north London, on April 27, 2018. Credit: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Activists are calling on the United Nations to remove Coca-Cola as a sponsor of the year’s most significant global climate summit, calling the partnership “pure greenwash” and pointing to the soft drink giant’s outsized contribution to the global plastic waste crisis and its role in perpetuating climate change.

Late last month, the U.N. announced Coca-Cola was sponsoring its COP27 climate talks, the world’s cornerstone annual conference on global warming, where nations discuss their progress toward achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and update their pledges under it. Microsoft, IBM, Boston Consulting Group and Vodafone are also corporate sponsors of the event, which will be held next month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

But the announcement faced swift backlash from the environmental community, which has accused Coca-Cola for decades of a litany of environmental harms and human rights abuses. A petition created this month, demanding the U.N. remove Coca-Cola from the sponsorship list, already had more than 233,000 signatures as of Tuesday. And a separate letter, signed by more than 240 environmental organizations from around the world, is also demanding Coca-Cola, as well as Microsoft, be removed from the list.

“The world’s largest plastics polluter” and “the world’s largest tech partner to the oil and gas industry” should not be allowed to “buy their way out of culpability for a crisis they have caused,” the groups, which include 350.org, the Center for International Environmental Law and the World Fair Trade Organization, said in their letter.

In 2019, Coca-Cola admitted that it was responsible for 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging that year. And an annual audit of corporate brands by Break Free From Plastic, a global coalition of environmental groups, has named Coca-Cola “the world’s top plastic polluter” four years in a row and accused the company of spending far more money on publicizing its environmental initiatives than on funding the actual programs themselves. 

For example, Coca-Cola spent $4.24 billion on advertising and marketing in 2019, the report said, while spending just $11 million that year on a program to clean up rivers polluted by plastic waste. And a leaked recording of a recent American Beverage Association conference also revealed that Coca-Cola had quietly lobbied for decades against policies like bottle bills, which aim to hold companies responsible for the plastic waste they create.

“Plastic is suffocating our planet and, year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters—Coca-Cola,” said Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental activist and former COP26 delegate who created the online petition to remove Coke as a corporate sponsor for next month’s climate summit.

“Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars greenwashing their brand, making us believe that they are solving the problem,” Elliot-Smith said in the petition. “But, behind the scenes, they have a long history of lobbying to delay and derail regulations that would prevent pollution, keeping us addicted to disposable plastic.”

The global beverage purveyor was also responsible for emitting the equivalent of 5.18 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2021, according to the company’s latest report. That’s roughly the same amount of CO2 emitted by more than 1.1 million U.S. cars over the course of a year, according to annual averages calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency

The company has also been accused of human rights abuses at some of its facilities outside of the United States, including a 2001 incident in Colombia where Coca-Cola was accused of hiring “a right-wing paramilitary group” to intimidate and even kill factory workers who were attempting to unionize. And activists have regularly criticized Coca-Cola—and other top beverage companies—of using too much water at a time when climate change is exacerbating drought conditions across large swaths of the world. In 2014, for example, authorities in northern India were forced to order the closure of a Coca-Cola plant after the company excessively depleted the region’s groundwater twice.

Coke didn’t respond to questions from Inside Climate News in time for publication, but the company and COP27 organizers have both responded to the recent criticism by pointing to Coca-Cola’s ongoing efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and clean up plastic trash in the ocean. That includes reducing the company’s total carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from its 2010 baseline, as well as reducing it by another 25 percent by 2030—with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Coca-Cola accomplished its 2020 goal. But like most emissions targets linked to a 2020 deadline, it’s unclear how much of Coke’s reductions that year were the result of pandemic-related shutdowns. In fact, a closer look at the company’s emissions since 2010 reveals a more complicated and less flattering story.

Coca-Cola initially set its goal to slash company emissions by a quarter in 2013. But over the next several years, its greenhouse gas contributions—excluding the “emissions from franchise bottlers”—actually climbed from 5.53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2013 to 5.56 million metric tons in 2019, according to Coke’s own internal calculations. And when the company used a separate calculation method, which includes the electricity Coca-Cola purchases from utilities and other energy providers to power its operations, its 2019 greenhouse gas emissions clocked in at 5.71 million metric tons—a notable increase.

In that sense, it’s reasonable to see why some critics might view Coca-Cola’s huge dip in carbon emissions between 2019 and 2021 as merely the result of a broad swath of the world’s economy shutting down to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

That interpretation can be backed up further when looking at the rise in Coca-Cola’s carbon emissions between 2020 and 2021, as businesses began opening up in larger numbers. The company reported 4.77 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020, a record low since at least 2010. That number then rose to 5.18 million metric tons last year, following the larger global trend of the global economy essentially returning to pre-pandemic levels.

More broadly speaking, activists also take issue with Coca-Cola because of its ongoing role supporting the plastics industry—one that some experts believe is essentially replacing the coal industry as a major climate threat. Not only is 99 percent of all global plastic made from fossil fuels, fostering collaboration and support between the two industries, but the process of manufacturing plastics—known as “cracking”—also generates plenty of greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air pollution.

In 2020, the U.S. plastics industry was responsible for at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report from the environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 100 average-sized coal-fired power plants. In fact, the plastics and petrochemical manufacturing industries are set to account for more than a third of the growth in world oil demand through 2030, and nearly half the growth through 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Those industries are also spurring new development of natural gas, the non-partisan international energy agency said, calling plastics and petrochemical production “the blind spot” of the world’s efforts to monitor global energy’s climate impacts.

As my colleague James Bruggers reported, the plastics industry is attempting to address that issue by promoting increased recycling efforts, specifically through a burgeoning process called chemical recycling. But environmentalists have criticized that idea, calling it a “false climate solution,” and accusing the industry of peddling the concept as a way to quell public outcry while selling more of its products.

Plastics recycling in general has largely been considered a failure. A new report from Greenpeace, released Monday, found that just 5 percent of U.S. plastic waste—roughly 51 million tons—was recycled last year. Experts say that’s in large part because it’s far cheaper for companies to buy new plastic made from fossil fuels than it is to buy recycled plastic, making such efforts financially unattractive. In fact, a 2020 investigation by National Public Radio and PBS Frontline found that Big Oil was largely behind the idea of recycling becoming popular in the U.S., with industry executives promoting an idea they knew wouldn’t work—and all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

With COP27 now just weeks away, activists worry corporate polluters, such as Coca-Cola, could similarly influence global climate policies under the Paris Agreement, potentially convincing nations to adopt solutions that environmental advocates consider flawed or watering down support for stringent policies that are backed by science.

“Coca-Cola sponsoring the COP27 is pure ‘greenwash,”’ Emma Priestland, a coordinator for Break Free From Plastic, told the Guardian. “It’s astounding that a company so tied to the fossil fuel industry is allowed to sponsor such a vital climate meeting.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

289 billion

That’s how many liters of water Coca-Cola used in 2017 to produce approximately 151 billion liters of Coke, Diet Coke and other beverages it sells, according to the company. That’s nearly a 2-to-1 ratio for water use to make Coca-Cola products, which the company says it is striving to improve. 

Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Andrew Chu had, of course, heard about the tomato soup incident. Who hasn’t?

Last week, two young and irreverent climate activists walked into the National Gallery in London and splattered tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting. The publicity stunt, they said, was meant to draw attention to society’s ongoing complacency when it comes to addressing global warming, and the painting itself was unharmed because of its glass covering.

But while that moment quickly garnered international attention, Chu was busy with his own act of defiance, albeit one that flew mostly under the media’s radar. Last Wednesday, the Harvard University freshman joined dozens of other students to interrupt an ExxonMobil recruitment event on campus aimed at luring prospective Harvard graduates into a career in the fossil fuel industry. The day before, a separate protest held by a dozen students at Brown University targeted a similar Exxon event at that college.

The demonstrations were part of a growing movement among college students who are demanding that their schools cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry because of its ongoing role in fueling the climate crisis. And while Chu’s protest didn’t make the same kind of splash as the London publicity stunt, the increasing pressure students are putting on their educational institutions to play an active role in fighting global warming could have significant and lasting ramifications for the effort to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last two years alone, a surge of student pressure has prompted at least 20 colleges and universities in the United States to promise to divest their endowments of fossil fuels. That includes Harvard University’s massive $42 billion endowment, which as of last year had an estimated $838 million in fossil fuel holdings. Globally, colleges and universities holding more than $6 trillion in investment power have made similar pledges, according to a list maintained by environmental groups.

Emboldened by those victories, students have since expanded their demands, urging their schools to no longer accept money from fossil fuel companies and their interest groups to pay for research, and to ban the industry from promoting itself or attempting to recruit students on campus. Students from five leading U.S. universities have also sued their schools, arguing they are in violation of a somewhat obscure law that requires colleges to invest in a manner consistent with their “charitable purposes.”

“The relationships between oil and gas companies and universities are communicated through money, whether that’s through recruiting students for longterm careers or funding climate research,” Chu, who organizes with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, told me in an interview. “So it’s really important that we shut those channels down in order to maintain independence for universities, to make sure that our research and policy is not being colored by the business interests of the industry.”

But last week’s events—including the now viral incident involving tomato soup—also offered a glimpse into the evolution of the youth climate movement since it exploded into mainstream public discourse in 2019, when millions of students around the world marched through the streets in what remains the single largest climate change protest in history

While the youth climate strikes of 2019 helped to elevate global warming as an issue that the world’s political and financial leaders could no longer ignore, many young people have grown increasingly frustrated since then, believing their governments, financial institutions and the broader business world have failed to follow through on their promises to become part of the solution. 

Climate scientists have said several times this year that the world is acting far too slowly and incrementally to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst consequences of global warming by the end of the century. Some researchers are even calling on the broader science community to take up activism and risk arrest over the issue. And research has generally shown that the vast majority of countries are off track to meet their pledges under the Paris Agreement, an issue that has only grown worse amid historic global inflation and the Russian war in Ukraine.

Even in areas where progress is being made, such as the massive growth in global renewable energy development that has been spurred by government policies, including in the U.S., those efforts are being undercut by a simultaneous surge in new fossil fuel production. The non-partisan International Energy Agency said last year that new fossil fuel development must immediately halt if nations want to achieve their stated climate goals, but an analysis released this month found that for every 90 cents going into renewable sources, a dollar is being spent on fossil fuels.

As a result of that lack of progress, we’re now seeing the “natural evolution” of the youth climate movement, said Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor and social movements scholar who has focused her work over the last three years on the youth climate movement.

After the 2019 climate strikes, Fisher told me, the youth climate movement ran into the same hurdles every other major political movement ran into—namely that vested interests are fighting to maintain the status quo and stifling progress for the kind of systemic changes social movements often seek.

“What I think we’ve seen now is a continuation of young people being extremely concerned about the climate crisis … because institutional politics is not working,” Fisher said. “You can say the exact same thing regarding the early waves of the civil rights movement, where you get a couple of concessions” but haven’t yet won systemic changes, like “giving Black people the right to vote.”

In that sense, she said, the tomato soup incident and the growing pressure students are putting on their schools are examples of how members of the youth climate movement are “honing” their tactics, and in some cases, turning to more extreme measures. In fact, Fisher added, the climate movement in general is now going in that direction.

Chu agrees with that characterization. And when I asked him if he believed the youth-led marches of 2019 acted like “a bludgeon” that forced governments and businesses to take the issue of climate change seriously, he agreed with that assessment, too. Unfortunately, he said, what followed was a bunch of promises that turned out to be “greenwashing”—lip service from those in power to pacify young people while they continue to make money from fossil fuels.

“That has forced a lot of activists, including us, to rethink our strategy,” he said. “We can’t just use the bludgeon anymore.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

30,000

That’s how many new electric vehicles the federal government needs to procure every year, along with roughly 25 times the current number of charging ports, if the Biden administration wants to meet its goal of an emissions-free federal fleet by 2035, according to a new government report.

Destroyed property is left in its wake as the Oak Fire chews through the forest near Midpines, northeast of Mariposa, California, on July 23, 2022. Credit: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
Destroyed property is left in its wake as the Oak Fire chews through the forest near Midpines, northeast of Mariposa, California, on July 23, 2022. Credit: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

Scientists are once again sounding the alarm over the intensifying wildfires plaguing the American West. In a series of new peer-reviewed studies, researchers warned that the behemoth blazes of recent years have contributed to a surge in harmful air pollution and planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and are even influencing extreme weather in other regions of the country.

In late September, Stanford University researchers published a study that found residents of Western states were exposed to a 27-fold increase of harmful particulate matter pollution, known as PM2.5, between 2006 and 2020 as wildfires intensified. Then this month, researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded in their own study that the wildfires of 2020 contributed to roughly a third of California’s total greenhouse gas emissions that year. And on Monday, the Department of Energy released groundbreaking research that found Western blazes are increasing the intensity of extreme weather in states as far east as Nebraska.

While it’s well known that particularly hot fires can spawn their own weather, Monday’s study was the first to link Western conflagrations to extreme weather events occurring in other parts of the country, including instances of damaging hail and deadly flash floods.

“Western wildfires significantly increase the intensity of severe storms over the central United States,” Jiwen Fan, an earth scientist with the energy department and a co-author of the agency’s study, told The Guardian. “This is the first study where we are really showing that wildfires can have a significant impact on the downstream weather.”

The studies add to a quickly growing body of evidence that suggests that the risks associated with wildfires aren’t just getting worse in the West, but expanding into areas far from where the blazes burn.

Recent research has shown wildfire smoke from California and Colorado was able to travel for thousands of miles to other states where it increased the risk of asthma attacks, lung disease and other health conditions. In one extreme case, smoke from Western conflagrations made it all the way to New York City. Western megafires have also been linked to weakening the Earth’s protective ozone layer and contributing to a viscous climate cycle, with more fires leading to faster snowmelt and increased aridity, which, in turn, makes forests more flammable. 

As for Monday’s study, energy department researchers analyzed and compared weather and wildfire data from 2009 to 2018, finding that Western fires boosted the rates of heavy precipitation and significant severe hail in the central U.S. by 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively. The researchers define significant severe hail as being at least 2 inches in diameter—larger than the size of a golf ball.

Both heat and aerosols from wildfires play an important role in those trends, the study said, by influencing the conditions that help create powerful storms—namely surface temperature, air pressure, windshear and atmospheric moisture.

Still, in many ways, the most significant impacts from wildfires remain in the West, where ongoing blazes continue to ravage states from the Pacific Coast to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.

Last month’s Stanford study, for example, found that the number of people exposed to dangerous levels of PM2.5 pollution in the West has ballooned over the course of about a decade. In 2006, less than half a million people were believed to live in areas experiencing dangerous levels of wildfire-related PM2.5 concentrations, the study said. By 2020, that number skyrocketed to more than 8 million.

Research has linked PM2.5 to increased risk of asthma, lung and heart diseases, as well as premature death. Scientists estimate that 50,000 deaths every year in the U.S. are caused in part to PM2.5 exposure. People of color and low-income households are also disproportionately exposed to such pollution—a finding the Stanford study reaffirmed by showing that predominantly Hispanic communities were most impacted by Western blazes.

And this month’s research from the University of Chicago and UCLA found that the greenhouse gas emissions from California wildfires in 2020 alone equaled twice the amount of emissions the state was able to reduce over the course of 16 years. In fact, the study said that wildfires were the second largest source of climate-warming emissions in 2020 for the Golden State, behind only the transportation sector, releasing roughly 127 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. By comparison, the state reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by just 65 million metric tons between 2003 and 2019.

“Essentially, the positive impact of all that hard work over almost two decades is at risk of being swept aside by the smoke produced in a single year of record-breaking wildfires,” Michael Jerrett,  an environmental health sciences professor at UCLA and a co-author of the study, said in a press release. 

Jerrett’s study also examined the financial costs of wildfires, finding that the carbon emissions released from the 2020 wildfires equated to more than $7 billion in total global damages, about $987 million in damages to the United States and nearly $99 million in damages for California. These damages were calculated using the Biden administration’s “social cost of carbon” equation, the authors said, and don’t include the fire control costs, damages from air pollution and direct loss of life and property.

Scientists worry such financial, environmental and health-related consequences will only get worse in the coming years, as the climate crisis continues to exacerbate drought and other conditions that fuel the region’s destructive blazes. Cooler autumn temperatures typically provide some relief to Northwest states dealing with fires. But amid yet another record-shattering heat wave in the region, officials are warning residents to not let down their guard—and for good reason.

Over the weekend, the Nakia Creek Fire on the southern border of Washington state exploded in size to more than 1,560 acres, forcing thousands of people from their homes and putting tens of thousands more on notice to evacuate if conditions worsen. It’s just one of 72 large fires currently burning across the American West.

“It may be October, but it’s clear we’re not out of the woods when it comes to wildfire smoke and the dangers it can bring,” Kaitlyn Kelly, an air quality expert with the Washington Department of Health, said in a statement, noting that extended exposure to “lower levels” of smoke can still be dangerous. “Don’t wait until you start feeling symptoms to act.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

603

That’s how many people have died in Nigeria this year due to extreme flooding, according to the latest update from local officials. This year’s floods have been the worst the country has seen in a decade, with more than 1.3 million people now displaced by the deluges.

Madeline Thayer is helped off a rescue vehicle as she evacuates the island on Oct. 2, 2022 in Pine Island, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Madeline Thayer is helped off a rescue vehicle as she evacuates the island on Oct. 2, 2022 in Pine Island, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At least 127 people have died in Florida because of Hurricane Ian, officials said, with another five deaths in North Carolina—a stark reminder of the consequences for society’s slow reaction to an increasingly dire climate crisis. But as stories from individual survivors continue to emerge, Ian has also become the latest symbol to highlight how governments are failing to protect one of the most vulnerable populations to global warming’s impacts: disabled people.

As Florida continues to piece itself back together after Ian devastated the state last month, some survivors are offering a glimpse into the difficult and dangerous reality those with physical and mental disabilities often face when disasters strike.

For Darcy Bishop, who takes care of her two adult brothers with cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease, that meant physically dragging one of her brothers, who weighs nearly 170 pounds and can’t bend his knees, up a flight of stairs as flood waters quickly filled their home. Though she and her brothers were eventually rescued by a family member with a canoe, Bishop recalled in an interview with the New York Times the dramatic moment she thought they were going to die.

“I’m sorry but I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Bishop told her mother on the phone, crying—after an hour, she had helped her brother climb just eight steps and the water was still rising. “I love you guys. I did all I could. I just wanted to call and tell you.”

For others, like Roy Key, Ian’s impact meant losing access to essential medications. The 87-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran suffers chronic pain from a recent accident that broke his hip and femur, as well as a shoulder injury he received while serving. When the storm knocked out nearby hospitals and clinics, leaving Key no way to get his prescriptions, he was forced to suffer through morphine withdrawal and intense nerve pain. A handful of Floridians even died because they couldn’t reach emergency medical services, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

Experts say those kinds of situations will only become more common as climate change accelerates, driving more intense storms, heat waves, wildfires and other natural disasters. The World Health Organization estimates that about 15 percent of the global population lives with a disability, and a growing chorus of health professionals and human rights activists are calling on their governments to do a better job of protecting that population from climate-related threats in the coming years.

Roughly 1.2 million Floridians with disabilities are believed to have been impacted by Hurricane Ian, according to one disability advocacy nonprofit. And that number may not fully reflect the millions of other Floridians with disabilities who are institutionalized in the state’s numerous nursing homes, many of which are located in counties where flooding and tropical storms are an increasingly common threat.

In the United States, some 41 million adults live with a disability that makes them more vulnerable to climate change than the general population, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That can be for a variety of reasons, the agency said, including policymakers failing to consider the needs of disabled people in their plans and emergency planners failing to design their warning systems to accommodate those who are blind, deaf or have some other communication impairment. People with disabilities are also more likely to need ongoing medical care that can be disrupted by a disaster, like Ian, and they’re more likely to have socioeconomic factors, such as unemployment, compounding those risks.

Besides storms, extreme heat and drought can also pose a serious threat to people with disabilities. For example, people with spinal cord injuries can have a far harder time regulating their body temperature and keeping cool. The same goes for people who take certain medications, such as antipsychotics, which can inadvertently increase the risk of heatstroke and dehydration. And people with multiple sclerosis also tend to feel more pain in hot weather conditions.

When a 2018 heat wave in Montreal, Canada, sent temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and killed 61 people, researchers pointed out that a quarter of the deaths occurred among people diagnosed with schizophrenia—a serious mental condition that is typically treated with antipsychotics. “That’s 500 times their share of the population,” Sébastien Jodoin, a professor at McGill University who studies how climate change affects people with disabilities, told BBC News.

But Jodoin, who has multiple sclerosis himself and is a leading researcher in the field, is among a relatively small number of scientists who are exploring that intersection. Many in the science community have said people with disabilities are drastically understudied when it comes to climate research. But that’s starting to change, and the findings so far paint a pretty bleak picture.

Not only do people with disabilities face a mortality rate up to four times higher than their able-bodied counterparts during natural disasters, but pre-existing psychosocial disabilities—such as schizophrenia or depression—appear to triple the risk of death during heat waves, two Harvard University researchers pointed out in an article published last year in the medical journal Lancet

To make matters worse, world leaders don’t appear to be taking the matter seriously, according to Jodoin’s most recent study. That research, which was published this summer, concluded that people with disabilities are being “systematically ignored” by governments around the world when it comes to the climate crisis. That’s despite 185 countries ratifying the 2006 United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, under which they pledged to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities” during “humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”

The Paris Agreement requires its signatory countries to consider people with disabilities in their plans to address climate change. But just 35 of the 192 member nations even mentioned disabled people in the plans they submitted under the accord, Jodoin’s study found. In fact, among the developed countries with wealthy economies, only Canada mentioned people with disabilities in its adaptation plan.“We are still failing people with disabilities, especially multiply-marginalized people, before, during and after disasters,” Marcie Roth, CEO of the World Institute on Disability, told Congress during a July hearing. “We need your help to address urgent, immediate, lifesaving steps (government agencies) can take to serve disaster-impacted people and communities being left out and left behind.”

Today’s Indicator

15

In the U.S., that’s the number of natural disasters so far this year that have caused at least $1 billion in damage. Hurricane Ian, the most recent disaster to fall under this category, is estimated to have caused between $53 billion and $74 billion in damages.

Employees work on a freight train loaded with coal at Jiangxi Coal Reserve Center on Aug. 19, 2022 in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province of China. Credit: VCG via Getty Images
Employees work on a freight train loaded with coal at Jiangxi Coal Reserve Center on Aug. 19, 2022 in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province of China. Credit: VCG via Getty Images

Clean energy is seeing a surge of new development all around the world, according to a series of new reports, with electricity produced from carbon-free wind and solar power helping to fill rising global energy demand. But the benefits from the new renewable energy, including its impact on greenhouse gas emissions, are being simultaneously undermined by a rise in new fossil fuel projects coming online.

With the COP27 global climate talks just a month away, and early indicators suggesting the world is still far off track from meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, it’s the latest reminder that fossil fuels maintain a stubborn grip on the world economy and continue to jeopardize the effort to stave off catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

In fact, to even have a chance of meeting the international climate accord’s Herculean task of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, investments in clean energy need to quadruple within the decade, according to a new analysis by BloombergNEF. Fossil fuel investments continue to outpace those in renewable energy, the report said, with about 90 cents going into renewable sources for every dollar spent on fossil fuels.

The result has been a boom in new clean energy infrastructure that, though impressive, is still struggling to flatten the rising trend of global greenhouse gas emissions. If that trend doesn’t change course soon, the cost for governments will only go up, officials from the International Monetary Fund, a leading global financial agency with the United Nations, said in another report published this week.

“The world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter before the end of this decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” the officials wrote. “Progress needed toward such a major shift will inevitably impose short-term economic costs, though these are dwarfed by the innumerable long-term benefits of slowing climate change.”

In the United States, the amount of electricity generated from clean sources has tripled over the last decade. And that record-breaking growth has continued this year, with electricity generated from solar and wind sources surging 22 percent in the first nine months of 2022. But despite that growth, U.S. power sector emissions fell just 1 percent so far this year, largely because of a simultaneous rise in new natural gas generation coming online.

Globally, a similar situation is playing out, but with coal. Despite pledges in recent years by governments and the coal industry itself to phase out the use of coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest form of fossil fuels has seen a resurgence in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, nearly half of all the world’s coal companies are now planning to expand their operations, with China’s power sector leading the way, according to a study published this week that examined the plans of more than 1,000 companies that make up 90 percent of all coal-fired electricity generation. The International Energy Agency also expects global coal consumption to jump nearly 1 percent by the end of the year, before hitting an all-time high in 2023.

“The world’s continued burning of large amounts of coal is heightening climate concerns, as coal is the largest single source of energy-related CO2 emissions,” IEA wrote in its July report, noting that coal consumption also saw a “sharp rise” last year, which “contributed significantly to the largest ever annual increase in global energy-related CO2 emissions in absolute terms, putting them at their highest level in history.”

That sharp rise in carbon dioxide emissions last year—roughly 6 percent—erased the historic drop in emissions the world saw during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s observatory in Hawaii detected a record-high carbon dioxide level of 421 parts per million in the atmosphere. While that was the peak for the year, which always comes at the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the observatory’s ongoing readings show an overall trendline that does not appear to be changing course from its steady upward march.

“The science is irrefutable: humans are altering our climate in ways that our economy and our infrastructure must adapt to,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in an agency press release in response to May’s record-high reading. “The relentless increase of carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa is a stark reminder that we need to take urgent, serious steps to become a more Climate Ready Nation.”

In some cases, the effects of climate change itself—such as worsening drought making it more difficult for hydropower dams to generate electricity—are also curbing the effectiveness of renewable energy. But there is still a silver lining to take away from the current trends: Without the record installation of new clean energy systems, the amount of fossil fuel-generated electricity, along with its subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, would have been even higher.

Even as global energy demand grew by 3 percent during the first half of the year, new installations of renewable energy were more than enough to meet that need, preventing an additional 4 percent increase in fossil fuel generation and roughly 230 metric tons of CO2 that would have been released because of it, another report released this week found.

“We are getting closer to a tipping point, where clean electricity—led by wind and solar—will meet all future electricity demand growth,” Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, a senior electricity analyst at the clean energy think tank Ember, wrote in the report. “The electricity sector should be quickly reducing emissions. The fact that we’re still at or close to record highs shows how much more quickly the electricity transition needs to happen.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. The newsletter will take a break next Tuesday in honor of Indigenous People’s Day on Monday. But I’ll be back in your inbox that Friday.

Today’s Indicator

10.5 percent

That’s the total amount of the world’s electricity that was generated by wind and solar power last year, marking the highest amount ever produced by the technologies, which made up less than 1 percent of global generation in 2012, according to the latest “Power Transition Trends” report.

Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Saying that Hurricane Ian was one for the history books is no understatement.

The Category 4 hurricane—just the 15th storm of such magnitude to strike Florida since state record-keeping began in 1851—had maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour and a minimum central pressure of 940 millibars when it made landfall just south of Tampa Bay last week. That puts Ian in an eight-way tie for the fifth strongest storm on record to hit the United States, as well as No. 18 in terms of its central pressure.

With current damage estimates going as high as $47 billion, Ian could also become Florida’s costliest hurricane in state history and among the 10 costliest on record nationally. It’s also the deadliest storm to hit Florida since at least the year 2000, surpassing Hurricane Irma’s death toll of 77 in 2017. As of Monday, at least 101 people have been reported killed in Florida and at least four died in North Carolina. Those numbers could climb further as search and rescue operations continue.

“As you all know, the situation in Florida is far more devastating. We’re just beginning to see the scale of that destruction,” President Joe Biden said during a Sept. 30 press conference on Ian. “It’s looking to rank among the worst in the nation’s history.”

It’s the kind of devastation that climate scientists have been increasingly warning about in recent years, as climate change drives up ocean temperatures that can fuel the energy and destructive capabilities of storms like Ian. A study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is just the latest in a quickly growing body of evidence to say that global warming is making storms more intense and destructive.

According to the analysis, which looked at satellite images dating back to 1979, climate change has boosted the likelihood of a hurricane developing into a Category 3 storm or higher by about 8 percent every decade.

But as I wrote last week regarding Hurricane Fiona, which surprised many communities over just how destructive it was, Ian’s intensity also appeared to catch Florida residents off guard, despite plenty of advanced warning that the storm was being supercharged by the Atlantic Ocean’s unseasonably warm waters.

In fact, a growing number of climate researchers are saying that not only is global warming making natural disasters like storms, wildfires and heat waves more frequent and severe, but they’re also occurring in unexpected places and playing out in unexpected ways that often confound the science community’s expectations. Ian was no exception.

With that in mind, here are six unexpected climate-related lessons we can draw from Hurricane Ian.

1) Ian was a poster child of climate change, combining its threats into one storm

While many people may not be surprised to learn that climate change contributed to the destructive nature of Hurricane Ian, it was a rare—though increasingly common—example of when a storm bears all the hallmarks of global warming’s influences.

Climate change is helping to supercharge tropical storms in terms of windforce and storm surge, as warmer waters lend more energy to hurricanes. It’s making storms wetter, as warmer air allows hurricanes to absorb more ocean water. And it’s often slowing down the path of storms, which allows a hurricane to dump massive amounts of rain over one region for a longer period of time, increasing the threats associated with floods.

Scientists have warned that the prevalence of those dangerous characteristics would become more common in the coming decades, a trend that has happened to materialize in some of our most recent major hurricanes. In fact, last year’s Hurricane Ida was a prime example of all three of those characteristics—stronger winds, heavier rain and a slower path—converging in just one storm. 

The same goes for Hurricane Ian.

At Category 4 strength, Ian blasted Florida’s coastal cities with powerful 150 mile-per-hour winds, ripping apart houses and generating “life threatening” and historic storm surge. Some areas saw storm surge reach heights of 12 feet, with the National Hurricane Center predicting as much as 18 feet of surge in Charlotte Harbor. That estimate, however, has yet to be confirmed because flooding broke the agency’s gauge in the area—but not before it registered 7 feet.

Ian was unusually wet, with at least one spot in New Smyrna seeing nearly 30 inches of rainfall. The first attribution study done of Ian, released this week, also found that climate change infused the hurricane with 10 percent more rain. And the Sarasota area received more than 13 inches of rain in just six hours, making Ian more rare than a “one in 1,000 year storm”—a storm with rainfall so heavy that it has less than a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. 

Finally, clocking in at a speed of just 9 miles per hour as it crawled along Florida’s coast, Ian’s path was also considerably slow-moving, according to the Key West Weather Service.

2) Ian showed us that flood waters can reach communities far from the hurricane warning zones

Hurricane Ian didn’t just leave its mark on the communities directly in its path. Many residents living in Central Florida—far from the hurricane warning zones—found themselves beset by rising flood waters days after the storm had left the state.

“Water just keeps going up. Who knows when it is going to stop,” Samuel Almanzar, who faced no evacuation orders and who thought his house in the quiet Sarasota suburb of North Port was safe from damage, told the Associated Press.

In Seminole County, too, residents were shocked to find their homes flooded well after Ian had already moved onto the Carolinas, when just a day or two prior they were essentially dry. One resident told the AP that she had never seen flooding on her street near Lake Harney like she did Sunday morning, despite living through multiple hurricanes.

Experts say that’s because the floodwater was carried into those towns by rivers, which continued to take on Ian’s deluge as the storm slowly worked its way northeast. The rivers then carried the water downstream, releasing it onto an unsuspecting Central Florida population, turning roads into canals, blocking critical highway access points and trapping terrified families in waterlogged homes.

On Sunday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to North Port and Arcadia to survey the damage. Floods were reported all across the state’s central region, stretching from Orlando down to the city of Kissimmee, and east to Daytona Beach. With rescue efforts ongoing, concerns arose over some places running out of food and clean drinking water, and officials warned that additional flooding from the rivers could continue through the week.

3) Ian reminded us of the dire cost to underestimating climate change

Days before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the western coast of Florida last Wednesday, forecasters were sounding the alarm, warning of “life threatening” storm surge and powerful winds. 

Officials along much of the coastline responded by ordering their communities to evacuate on Monday, Sept. 26. But Lee County officials held off their announcement for a full day, in part because forecasters were uncertain of the path Ian would ultimately take. 

But the fact that Lee County delayed any serious warning to leave at all, knowing that Ian would in some way impact the coastline, speaks volumes of the tendency among American policymakers to underestimate the power of climate change. That choice, it would turn out, was a mistake.

Ian slammed into Florida on its originally predicted course, with Lee County taking the brunt of the storm’s impact. Many of the county’s residents were caught completely unprepared. As of this week, a staggering 55 of the 101 deaths so far confirmed in Florida due to Ian took place in Lee County.

Now those officials are facing questions about why they didn’t tell residents to leave sooner.

Strangely enough, local, state and federal officials—including from the Biden administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, defended the decision. Over the weekend, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell spoke on national news, saying the projected danger zone for Ian remained unclear days before its landfall, and that once Lee County officials “knew that they were in that threat zone,” they “made the decisions to evacuate and get people to safety.”

But climate scientists have generally criticized U.S. policymakers for consistently under-preparing for the consequences of the climate crisis, and forecasters even warned days in advance of Ian’s landfall in Florida that the storm could supercharge to nearly Category 5 strength. It’s a narrative that appeared to play out again in Lee County.

One last example: While some 600,000 Florida utility customers remained without power on Monday— most of them reliant on a centralized grid powered predominantly by fossil fuels—an entire neighborhood located on the northern tip of Lee County managed to keep electricity flowing throughout Hurricane Ian. How? It was powered 100 percent by solar energy.

4) Ian exposed how climate change is fueling gentrification

Flooding from storms is pushing Florida homebuyers and business owners with more resources to buy up properties located outside the state’s known flood zones, redrawing coastal communities and often displacing low-income and immigrant residents in the process. 

In other words, Florida has become a hotbed for “climate gentrification,” says a new study from Columbia University and Tulane University.

The research examines property trends across the Sunshine State, providing an “early warning system,” or Climate Gentrification Risk Index, for elected officials and city managers who have struggled to recognize or respond to the trend of climate gentrification.

While the study focuses on Florida, the trend is likely taking place all across the nation. Climate-driven natural disasters are forcing more Americans out of their homes and triggering waves of relocations as some regions of the country become too burdensome or dangerous for many people to continue living in them. The federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment warned that more than 13 million people across the country may need to move by the end of the century due to sea level rise alone, and a growing body of evidence suggests the U.S. isn’t prepared to handle it.

In terms of Florida, the authors of the new study hope their index can become an important tool to help guide policymakers overseeing recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area is the sixth-largest in Florida and among its fastest-growing regions. It was also one of the areas most impacted by Ian.

5) It reminded us that climate misinformation often spreads in the wake of a big disasters

When CNN anchor Don Lemon asked the acting director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on live television to talk about how climate change was affecting storms like Hurricane Ian, the federal official attempted to sidestep the question.

“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event,” NOAA’s Jamie Rhome responded. “On the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse, but to link it to any one event, I would caution against that.”

The exchange quickly took off on Twitter and other social media platforms, with many users seeing the moment as a vindication for their doubts that global warming is as bad as the vast majority of climate experts say it is.

“This is amazing. Don Lemon tries to blame Hurricane Ian on climate change,” one Twitter user said, his post being shared more than 7,000 times. “NOAA’s hurricane director shuts him down.”

“For anyone not living in fantasy land, yes this storm is worse than usual because of climate change,” another user replied.

But what Rhome was doing was pointing out the difficulties in attribution science, the field that determines whether climate change did, in fact, have an influence on the outcomes of a singular weather event. While scientists now generally agree that climate change has an overall impact on the planet’s weather patterns, many have refrained from too quickly passing such a judgment on every storm, fire and heat wave that passes through.

The still burgeoning field has drawn criticism within the science community over the years. But researchers in the area have also drastically improved their ability to determine whether any given weather event carries the fingerprint of climate change.

In fact, the tools used in attribution science have become so powerful, and the body of work produced in the field so plentiful, that many climate experts now say it’s irresponsible for any scientist to say climate change isn’t influencing any given weather event.

“Too often we still hear, even from government scientists, the old saw that we cannot link individual hurricanes to climate change,” climate scientists Michael Mann and Susan Joy Hassol, wrote in an opinion piece last week. “There was a time when climate scientists believed that to be true. But they don’t any more.”

Nonetheless, the moment between Lemon and Rhome presented a golden opportunity for those who spread misleading or false information about climate change to capitalize on it. In fact, climate-related misinformation often surfaces in the wake of major disasters, like Ian. 

The same thing happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida last year. One post, with a picture of a monkey and a caption that reads, “FLORIDA HAS HAD 119 HURRICANES SINCE 1850, BUT THE LAST ONE WAS DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE,” was shared at least 23,000 times on Facebook. Similar memes, which attempt to portray concerns over climate change as foolish, have appeared online after many major U.S. hurricanes, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

“Having this stupid argument every time an extreme weather event occurs, and definitely extreme weather events are occurring more and more frequently and causing more and more damage, it’s a distraction from the real issue,” Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime climate journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author told France’s leading news agency, Agence France-Presse, last year.

6) Despite all the challenges, it also showed American politics can still be set aside for the greater good

Most importantly of all, perhaps, Hurricane Ian was a reminder that despite the combative rhetoric that has seemed to increasingly dominate U.S. politics in recent years, the American people are still capable of setting aside their differences and working together for the greater good.

Despite his track record of voting against hurricane recovery and being one of President Biden’s most vocal critics, Gov. DeSantis welcomed the administration’s help and even conveyed a message of unity on a cable news program known especially for its politically divisive reputation: Fox News’ ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’

“We live in a very politicized time,” DeSantis said on the program last week, as he asked the Biden administration to “do the right thing” and fulfill his request for full federal reimbursement up front for 60 days. “But you know, when people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything—if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to.”

Biden, too, leaned into a message of unity last week as he briefed the nation on Ian’s ongoing rescue efforts. “This is one fight—everyone working together,” he said. “The Coast Guard, Defense Department, Customs and Border Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife, local officials, they’re doing everything they can to rescue people.”

And when the two did meet, and DeSantis requested that Biden expand the federal emergency declaration to an additional four counties in Central Florida—the ones unexpectedly hit by river flooding—the president quickly agreed. The move will allow those counties to access the billions in federal aid now heading to Florida for Ian recovery efforts.

Given that both Biden and DeSantis are stumping in one way or another for the upcoming midterm elections, such unity could be short-lived. But it was a rare moment in today’s highly-charged political atmosphere where the greater good—for whatever reason—prevailed. In that sense, maybe it was an important reminder that the fight to curb climate change can still prevail, too.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

11

That’s how many hurricanes reached Category 4 strength during last year’s Atlantic storm season, adding to a quickly growing tally of “billion-dollar” disasters, fueled in large part because of human-caused climate change.

In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images
In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

A growing number of international officials and global security experts believe Russia sabotaged its own natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, resulting in the release of an estimated 300,000 metric tons of methane gas into the atmosphere.

Researchers say that amounts to the largest-ever release of the potent greenhouse gas during a single event, with an impact similar to the annual emissions of 1 million cars. Because methane is 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet over a 20-year period, the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines, which deliver gas from Russia to Western Europe, could be considered a climate disaster in its own right.

The gas could be seen rising to the surface of the ocean Monday, following what seismologists say were two explosions that didn’t appear to be caused by natural forces, such as an earthquake or underwater landslide. European security officials also said they observed Russian Navy support ships and submarines in the vicinity of the pipeline leaks Monday and Tuesday. And NATO ambassadors released an official statement Thursday, declaring that “all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” which is “causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage.”

In that sense, the Nord Stream incident could also signal an ominous geopolitical trend that climate advocates and security experts have warned about for years—that a warmer world could also mean a less cooperative one, driven by rising conflict over territory, resources and the permeation of isolationist and nationalist ideologies.

“Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries,” the Department of Defense wrote to Congress members in a 2015 report.

Officials with the United Nations reiterated those concerns last year, during the COP26 global climate talks in Scotland. Although global warming itself may not always be a direct cause of conflict, they said, it can often act as a “risk multiplier,” by exacerbating financial burdens for communities and governments dealing with extreme weather, driving displacement and undermining human rights in regions where frequent disasters are contributing to a surge in migration, as well as leaving women especially vulnerable to harm in situations where societal laws and social safety nets are breaking down.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in his opening remarks at last year’s summit. “And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

In fact, a study published back in March by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group, found that climate change is “unambiguously worsening” conditions that contribute to clashes and deepen human suffering. Violent conflicts related to water disputes have increased sharply over the last 20 years, the study found, especially in regions where drought conditions and other climate impacts have made competition over dwindling resources fiercer. 

A fourth of the conflicts the researchers observed in that timeframe occurred in the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—areas that have been hit especially hard by climate change. Those clashes include a 2016 incident during Syria’s brutal civil war when government forces surrounded the city of Aleppo and deprived its residents of running water, as well as a 2018 incident in which rival groups destroyed water tanks at a hospital in Yemen and a similar 2019 incident where the extremist group Al Shabab blew up a water tank in Somalia.

In terms of the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, those who suspect Russia’s involvement see a similar situation unfolding in which resource access is being cut off—or being threatened to be cut off—to instill fear and gain leverage over rivals in a broader conflict. And while the impacts of climate change may not be directly influencing that conflict, including the Russian war in Ukraine, some political and energy analysts believe climate change issues are still playing a central role in it.

Russia has been accused before of using its dominance over the European energy market to bully other countries and bolster its influence. Turkmenistan accused Russia of similarly blowing up a gas pipeline in its country in 2009 for economic gain. And this summer, during its ongoing war with Ukraine, Russian troops occupied a Ukrainian nuclear power plant and put the facility at risk of a meltdown, prompting some American intelligence officials and policymakers to speculate that Russia was attempting to intimidate Ukraine’s leaders and warn the West to stay out of the conflict.

Russia generates most of its income from exporting fossil fuels, and likewise, nations in Western Europe have been dependent on those fuels to heat their homes and power their electrical grids. Over the years, tensions have grown between those countries and Russia, in part because Russian President Vladimir Putin feels threatened financially and politically by the European Union’s efforts to transition to renewable energy and by the expansion of NATO, a global defense coalition that Russia has long seen as a military threat to its interests. Political analysts broadly believe that those dynamics were among the core motivations behind Putin’s decision in February to invade Ukraine, which was considering joining NATO.

When European countries, along with the United States, imposed sanctions on Russian fuel imports as punishment for the country’s aggression, Putin responded by cutting off deliveries of natural gas to Western Europe, primarily by shutting down its Nord Stream pipelines last year. That has since caused widespread economic pain across the continent and exacerbated already record-high global inflation.

Now, by blowing the pipeline up just weeks before winter, when demand for heating and electricity in Europe is at its highest, Russia is sending another threatening message to its former clients, David Goldwyn, who ran the State Department’s energy program during the Obama administration, told POLITICO. “Prepare for a life without Russian gas,” he said. “It’s a threat of a complete cut-off.”

Such hostile dynamics also pose a serious threat to the global effort to curb climate change. Shifting geopolitics over fossil fuels and clean energy resources, compounded by the increasing cost of climate-driven natural disasters, is making it harder to foster cooperation between nations at a time when scientists say it’s most needed to prevent catastrophic global warming by the end of the century. 

Worsening tensions between Western Europe and Russia, as well as between the United States and China, are already jeopardizing international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. A report released earlier this week found that just 19 of the 193 countries that signed the climate accord have fulfilled their promise from last year to create more ambitious emissions reductions targets. That finding—paired with the possibility that Russia would sabotage its own pipelines to keep the world dependent on planet-warming fossil fuels—bodes poorly for smooth and easy negotiations at the upcoming COP27 climate talks, now just weeks away. 

Foreseeing those challenges, clean energy advocates urged U.S. and European leaders to double down on their efforts to build new renewable power sources in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it would reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon against other countries. Unlike the fossil fuel systems we use today, which rely on centralized power plants that burn fuels and deliver electricity to a large area, renewable energy systems draw from free sources—such as the sun and wind—and can power smaller, independent grids that are less vulnerable to power failures due to natural disasters or hostile attacks, advocates argue.

“Renewable energy such as wind and solar” not only “offers more control to local communities and businesses,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and renewable energy expert Scott Brown said in an opinion essay this summer, it can also “provide resilience from the impacts of war, natural disasters and corruption.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

24,000 kilometers

If combined together, that’s roughly the length of all the new oil and gas pipelines that are currently being developed around the world, a new report found. The projects, led by the U.S., Russia, China and India, are “dramatically at odds” with the targets of the Paris Agreement, the report added.

A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fiona, technically, was no longer a hurricane by the time it hit Newfoundland early Saturday. But for the residents of Canada’s most easterly province, which hugs the Atlantic Ocean, it was the most powerful storm they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

The post-tropical cyclone, which had already devastated Puerto Rico with massive flooding earlier in the week, made landfall in Eastern Canada with Category 2 hurricane strength, tearing the roofs off of schools, waterlogging roads and playgrounds and washing entire homes into the sea. On Monday, hundreds of buildings across Canada’s eastern provinces had been damaged or destroyed in the storm and more than a quarter million customers remained without power.

Forecasters called Fiona “historic.” Others described it as “unprecedented,” “unbelievable” or “breathtaking.” One resident of Channel-Port aux Basques, a small town on the southern shore of the province, described the siding of her home disintegrating and flying into the air “just like confetti at a wedding.”

To longtime climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, however, a better way to describe Fiona would be “a pink elephant with polka dots.”

Ekwurzel, who has studied global warming since 1991 and is now the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, borrowed the phrase from another climate researcher to describe how the consequences of the planet’s rising temperatures are largely outpacing all scientific expectations. The connection between more destructive storms and climate change has been well established, but Ekwurzel said the issue has become larger than that.

Not only is global warming making natural disasters like storms, wildfires and heat waves more frequent and severe, she told me, but they’re also occurring in unexpected places and playing out in unexpected ways that often baffle the science community’s understanding of the world—like discovering a pink elephant with polka dots in nature: a reality no one imagined was possible.

Ekwurzel said the metaphor can be seen everywhere. It’s in the unexpected way Hurricane Dorian hovered for days over Gulf Coast states in 2019, causing massive flood damage. It’s in the way wildfires are cropping up in ancient sequoia groves in California, killing off hundreds of trees once thought impervious to fire damage. And it’s in the way record-shattering heat waves are blowing modern precedent out of the water, like the heat wave that killed some 800 people in the Pacific Northwest last summer, or the one this summer that brought temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit to the United Kingdom for the first time in modern history. 

It’s the bizarre polar vortex that disabled the Texas power grid last winter; the massive monsoon rains that submerged a third of Pakistan underwater this summer; the way that Hurricane Ian, currently on its way toward the Florida coast, supercharged from a tropical storm to a major hurricane overnight and is now expected to hit the city of Tampa with Category 3 strength.

“As scientists, we are not finding the language to tell people what’s really going on,” Ekwurzel said. “In a way, our statistics are failing us” because “we’re getting into uncharted territory” and “our models only show what we know, which is based on the past.”

In Fiona’s case, people in Puerto Rico were caught off guard not because of the windforce, which dictates the categorical strength of a hurricane, but by its massive output of rain. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm when it hit the U.S. territory five years earlier, was considered far more powerful than Fiona. But when the Category 1 storm made landfall on the island last week, it left many Puerto Ricans shocked by how much damage it caused. One video, which was widely shared online and in the news, shows floodwaters overtaking and destroying a recently built metal bridge, as bystanders watch in disbelief.

It was a similar situation in Newfoundland and other eastern Canadian provinces. While those living along Canada’s Atlantic coast were no strangers to powerful winds, such as the 70 mile-per-hour winds produced by Fiona, most of them weren’t prepared for its storm surge. In fact, the waves Fiona created were so large, they reached homes that had safely existed on the coastline for nearly a century.

It wasn’t the wind Newfoundlanders were worried about, a local newspaper editor told the New York Times. “We’re used to that,” he said. “But what we’re not used to is 30-, 40-, 50-foot waves coming up onto the roads, moving houses 60 feet or just completely vaporizing them.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a similar sentiment at a press conference on Saturday, as he promised that his country was quickly working to better prepare communities for the new reality climate change is creating. “Whether it was wildfires this past summer, whether it was the terrible flooding in BC just last year, we know there is a need for more resilient infrastructure,” he told reporters, adding that a “one in a 100 year storm” is now “hitting every few years instead of every century.”

But even Trudeau’s speech shows that humanity is preparing for the past, Ekwurzel told me, and scientists need to better convey just how quickly the goalpost of climate change is shifting. In most cases, she said, cities, states and countries are using outdated benchmarks in their plans to mitigate and adapt to global warming.

For something like the so-called “one in a 100 year storm,” which essentially means a storm of such magnitude that it has a 1 percent chance of happening every year, the term itself is outdated, since such storms are already happening far more regularly, Ekwurzel said. “A one in a 100 year storm, the way people understand it, I think we’re not conveying what that statistic means,” she said. “A 1,000 year storm, at this point, is probably what people should be talking about—that’s what we should be designing our infrastructure for because that will soon be upon us.”

Though powerful storms like those are still rare, they’re becoming more extreme when they do occur, said Jill Trepanier, an associate professor at Louisiana State University who studies hurricanes, extreme weather phenomena and climate change. “I think of it like this,” Trepanier told me in an email. “The average hurricane of today is not the average hurricane of the past. While Category 5 storms will still be rare, they will become more frequent, and the storm someone is ‘used to’ will likely become a slightly higher level.”

As Ian makes its way toward Florida, after lashing western Cuba Monday night, forecasters are warning that the state’s west coast could see “life threatening storm surge” of up to 12 feet, starting as soon as Tuesday evening, along with 6 to 12 inches of rain. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged residents to take the threat seriously, and officials have ordered more than 2.5 million people to evacuate.

While Ian is expected to be less intense than Hurricane Michael, which flattened Florida’s Mexico Beach in 2019 with 160 mile-per-hour winds and as much as 14 feet of storm surge, Ian would mark the first time in 100 years that Tampa has suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane, said Allison Wing, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Florida State University.

That’s particularly worrisome, Wing told me, since flooding—both from storm surge and rainfall—is the leading cause of death in tropical storms and the Tampa region is “incredibly vulnerable to storm surge.”

In that sense, Hurricane Ian could very well be Tampa’s one in a 100 year storm—another historic disaster to add to the quickly growing list of such catastrophes that keep catching communities off guard.

For Ekwurzel, she hopes the tragedies of 2022 will be a wake up call for lawmakers, business leaders and other people in power, showing them that incremental steps to address climate change aren’t cutting it, and in fact, the world should be preparing for much worse. “These are our neighbors and our friends, and people are losing their faith in leadership,” she said. In other words, we need to start preparing for “pink elephants with polka dots.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

James Bruggers contributed to this report.

Today’s Indicator

36

That’s how many people died in extreme storms in India over the weekend, including 12 who were struck by lightning and 24 who died when their homes collapsed amid torrential rainfall. Climate change has made lightning strikes more common, research has found.

Work crews from Winkelman's Environmentally Responsible Construction (WERC) and Trillium Development readied a SES wind turbine for lifting atop 160 foot tower at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Credit: Star Tribune via Getty Images

Just a week after receiving similar criticism from congressional Democrats, Big Oil is once again facing allegations of misleading the public in an attempt to stall climate action and protect its bottom line. 

In a report published Monday, environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch accuses the industry’s biggest trade association of exaggerating the number of nationwide jobs created and sustained by oil and gas companies by more than 10 million. Fossil fuel advocates cite those inflated numbers, the report’s authors argue, when lobbying against fracking bans, drilling limitations and other policies aimed at reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The American Petroleum Institute’s most recent “State of American Energy” report, which uses the trade association’s estimates from 2019, “claims that 11.3 million jobs are supported by the oil and gas industry,” Food and Water Watch wrote in its Monday report. “In reality, there were only 695,000 oil and gas jobs nationally in 2019.”

“The oil and gas industry and its proponents are misleading the public and policymakers about the economic benefits produced by this destructive industry,” the report’s authors added. “Their false claims do not add up and cannot be allowed to stall a rapid transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.”

Both the American Petroleum Institute, or API, and Food and Water Watch use government data in their analyses—though API draws from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, while Food and Water Watch pulls its numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the environmental group said in its report that the main reason for API’s much higher estimate is because it includes “entirely unrelated jobs,” such as truck drivers and wholesalers, who deliver or sell fossil fuel products, and even companies that manufacture asphalt and roofing materials made from petroleum.

Gas station jobs, including those from attached convenience stores, account for roughly half of the jobs cited in fossil fuel industry studies, the report added.

Those “indirect” or “induced” jobs come mostly from fossil fuel industry supply chains and from the wages employees spend at other businesses, rather than from oil and gas companies themselves, the report said, and could easily be replaced by clean energy jobs. Truck drivers, for example, could deliver parts for wind farms and solar systems, wholesalers could sell them, and manufacturing plants could build them.

“In other words, the jobs that these companies identify as being endangered” by climate action “would only be ‘lost’ if the alternative to investment in oil and gas had nothing to do with capital and did not involve using power or energy,” the report’s authors conclude. “This is a false choice.”

The American Petroleum Institute rejected the conclusions of Monday’s report, calling it “misleading” and saying it reflects the authors’ “fundamental misunderstanding of how our industry benefits all sectors of the economy.”

“There’s no question that America’s natural gas and oil industry has been a complete game-changer for local economies, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and lowering household energy costs, all while strengthening our energy security and driving environmental progress,” an API spokesperson said in an email to Inside Climate News.

But the Food and Water Watch’s assessment appears to align more squarely with the Department of Energy’s 2021 analysis on U.S. energy sector jobs, which found that clean energy jobs led the sector’s boom in employment last year, while jobs for gas, coal and petroleum companies declined by more than 29,271, or about 3.1 percent. The International Energy Agency also estimated in its annual “World Energy Employment Report,” published earlier this month, that up to 14 million new clean energy jobs worldwide could be created by 2030, with another 16 million workers expected to switch to new roles related to clean energy.

The Food and Water Watch’s report marks the second time this month that fossil fuel companies have faced public scrutiny over how their products impact climate change and the sincerity behind their commitments to address it. Facing mounting public pressure, the world’s top oil companies have announced goals in recent years to either transition to renewable energy sources or at least reduce their carbon footprint.

A February study, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, however, found that the four biggest oil majors—Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP—aren’t following through on those commitments as they continue to prioritize investments in new oil and gas development. And last week, House Democrats released a series of internal documents that they say proves oil companies are continuing to mislead the public on climate change, undercut global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and push unproven technological solutions as a way to continue selling fossil fuels.

Those documents, which were subpoenaed in a House investigation on climate disinformation, include an email sent to Exxon’s chief executive that discusses how to weaken an industry-wide climate commitment, a guidance memo warning Shell employees to “not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense” to avoid attracting lawsuits from investors, as well as an email from one Shell employee who said the company’s “net zero” pledge “has nothing to do with our business plans.”

In fact, Big Oil has been facing similar allegations for years, if not decades. Since 2017, at least 20 lawsuits have been filed by U.S. cities and states against leading oil companies, accusing them of downplaying the consequences of burning fossil fuels to consumers and investors, despite knowing for decades that their products were causing historic and devastating climate change.

But those allegations, and their broader implications for the world, appear to be coming to a head this year, as fossil fuel companies reap record-breaking profits and as nations discuss ways to pay for the international effort to curb the climate crisis.

Accelerated by the pandemic recovery and the Russian war in Ukraine, both of which experts say have upended global geopolitics and largely contributed to sky-high energy costs, fossil fuel companies around the world are now making some of their largest profits on record. Altogether, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and TotalEnergies made $55 billion in the second quarter of 2022 alone, with Exxon posting its biggest quarterly profit in history at $17.9 billion. 

At the same time, hundreds of millions of people around the world are paying record-high prices at the pumps and on their energy bills. That has sparked criticism from several top U.S. lawmakers, who have accused the companies of using their recent profits to line the pockets of executives and investors, rather than help struggling everyday Americans. “Instead of using these windfalls to lower prices, oil companies are instead buying back their own stock and increasing shareholder dividends,” the office of Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), wrote in a press release last month.

Big Oil is feeling the heat on the global stage as well. In his opening speech at the 77th United Nations General Assembly, being held this week in New York City, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged all developed economies to tax fossil fuel companies to pay for efforts to help “people struggling with rising food and energy prices” and “countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.”

“It is high time to put fossil fuel producers, investors and enablers on notice,” Guterres said. “Polluters must pay.”

It’s an issue the authors of the Food and Water Watch report highlighted as well, pointing to the industry’s declining employment rate, even as domestic fossil fuel production increased. Since 2014, the report said, oil and gas companies increased their production by 33 percent, while industry jobs declined 37 percent. In 2021, the latest available year for government employment data, oil and gas companies directly employed just over 500,000 workers nationwide, according to the environmental group’s report. That’s 50,000 fewer than the total number of jobs an API representative claimed would be lost in Pennsylvania alone after state regulators voted last year to ban fracking in the Delaware River Basin.

“While the oil and gas industry uses promises of employment to gain political leverage, increased production does not actually guarantee more jobs,” the Food and Water Watch authors said. “And 2021 shows that even when production returns, jobs continue to be cut.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$207 billion

That’s how much money U.S. banks provided the coal industry between 2019 and 2021, according to a new report, making American financial institutions second only to Chinese banks when it comes to funding the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Street lamps are out on a street in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Street lamps are out on a street in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Most of Puerto Rico remained in the dark Tuesday morning as crews rushed to assess and repair the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona, which continues to gather strength on its northwest path toward the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The U.S. territory suffered “catastrophic damage” over the weekend and through Monday, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said, after the Category 1 storm unleashed violent winds and torrential rain, killing at least three people, forcing hundreds more to evacuate and knocking out power for more than a million homes and businesses.

Fiona, which made landfall on the southern shore of Puerto Rico on Sunday, is the year’s first major hurricane of the Atlantic season and the first storm of its strength to hit the territory since Hurricane Maria crippled the island’s electrical grid in 2017. It’s also the clearest example to date of the Puerto Rico government’s failure to adequately prepare for the increasingly frequent and destructive storms that scientists say are being exacerbated by climate change.

As of Tuesday morning, less than 150,000 of Puerto Rico’s 1.4 million public utility customers had working electricity, despite tens of billions of dollars in federal aid and a massive five-year effort to overhaul and modernize the island’s poorly maintained and unsound powergrid. But a growing number of Puerto Ricans, who have privately installed solar systems on the roofs of their homes and businesses, say the island-wide blackout caused by Fiona could have been entirely avoided, pointing to themselves as proof of a better way.

“We’re fine,” Arturo Massol-Deyá, who uses solar panels and battery storage to power his house, his office and several other buildings in Adjuntas, a mountainside town in central Puerto Rico, told me in an interview Monday afternoon. “Basically, we’re waiting for the sun to shine again—we don’t have damage, all the infrastructure is in place and it’s running. It was running during the hurricane.”

Eddie Ramirez, owner of Casa Sol, a bed and breakfast located in the territory’s northern capital of San Juan, gave a similar response. “Personally, me and my family, we’re good,” Ramirez, who equipped his business with solar panels and battery storage back in 2013, told me over the phone. “Puerto Rico, I can say, is not.”

In the southeastern coastal city of Salinas, which was in the center of Fiona’s path and likely saw some of the storm’s worst damage, environmental attorney Ruth Santiago said her solar system also kept her lights on throughout the storm. “That’s why I’m charging my phone and making lunch and that kind of thing, but no one else has power,” she told me, apologizing as the beep of a timer chirped in the background. 

“Sorry,” she said, “that was just my oven going off.”

The same goes for a gas station in Utuado, a pharmacy in Patillas and a community center in Arecibo. All of them had installed solar panels and battery storage this summer and none lost power during the storm, a local familiar with the businesses told Inside Climate News.

While the full extent of Fiona’s damage to Puerto Rico remains to be seen, the six anecdotes highlight a growing frustration among Puerto Ricans, who don’t trust their government to provide them with reliable electricity, especially during natural disasters, and are increasingly turning to privately-installed rooftop solar systems to provide their energy needs.

Since 2017, more than 40,000 Puerto Rican households have installed, or are in the process of installing, rooftop solar panels, according to a report released last week by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a progressive think tank that promotes renewable energy. The vast majority of those systems have been installed with battery storage, the report said, and currently provide 3.7 percent of the territory’s total electricity consumption, outpacing the island’s utility-scale projects.

But the report also criticizes the Puerto Rican government, which it says “continues its misguided push for natural gas” while building “no new renewable energy.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017 as a Category 4 storm and is believed to have caused nearly 3,000 deaths on the island, many of which were due to a lack of electricity. In its aftermath, the residents of Puerto Rico demanded that their government transition away from expensive fossil fuel imports and toward renewable energy.

Energy analysts and climate activists have said that renewable power, when paired with battery storage and smaller electrical grids, is better suited to withstand the kinds of increasingly destructive storms the territory will face as the climate crisis worsens. Solar and wind energy circumvent the complications associated with importing fuels, they say, and smaller grids help to prevent widespread blackouts when a major power plant goes offline or a key transmission line goes down.

Puerto Ricans broadly agreed with that reasoning, and shortly after Maria, voters pressured their government to pass a law in 2019 that requires the island to be fully powered by solar, wind or other renewable sources by 2050. Additional regulations also require Puerto Rico to prioritize smaller, independent grids.

But progress on that effort has been slow, to say the least, and many residents, including Santiago, Ramirez and Massol-Deyá, say their government and public utility, as well as LUMA Energy—the private company that took over the island’s power transmission system last year—have failed to take the law seriously.

In fact, the two power companies, both of which have significant ties to global investment firms that specialize in fossil fuel infrastructure development and natural gas distribution, have been repeatedly accused by Puerto Rico’s top energy regulator and members of the U.S. Congress of “dragging their feet” when it comes to building new solar, wind and other renewable energy capacity on the island. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau has even threatened the companies with fines if they didn’t plan for more renewable development and pick up the pace on securing it.

In March, Puerto Rico’s public utility reported that less than 5 percent of the island’s electricity was coming from renewable sources and warned that it would likely miss the first legal benchmark of obtaining 40 percent of the territory’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Widespread, daily blackouts, paired with quickly rising energy costs, have also angered many Puerto Ricans, who have called for their governor to resign and for the Puerto Rican government to end its contract with LUMA.

Both LUMA and Puerto Rico’s public utility have defended their track records, however, saying the public has painted an unfair picture of their efforts. “People are trying to portray us as anti-solar and it’s absolutely not true,” Wayne Stensby, LUMA Energy’s CEO, said at a Congressional hearing in October.

Most notably, LUMA pointed to the progress made processing a massive backlog of requests to connect private solar systems to Puerto Rico’s centralized electricity grid. The company has processed thousands of those requests in the matter of months, though many more remain.

In February, the Biden administration promised to help Puerto Rico achieve its renewable energy ambitions, saying it would align a record amount of federal aid Congress has earmarked to repair the territory’s tattered grid and boost its struggling economy with the goals of its landmark 2019 clean energy law.

But Santiago, who also sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which advises the Biden administration on ways to advance environmental justice, said she’s not convinced federal agencies are doing much to follow through on that commitment.

The Government Accountability Office said Thursday that Puerto Rico has spent only 2 percent of the $21 billion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved for Maria-related recovery efforts. And the recovery money Puerto Rico has spent so far has gone toward rebuilding the island’s centralized grid, as well as bolstering and repairing the fossil fuel power plants that still produce the vast majority of the electricity, she said.

Most Puerto Ricans still can’t afford to install their own private solar systems, Santiago said, so they need help and the historic amount of federal aid going to Puerto Rico could make all the difference. The Puerto Rico government and the Biden administration “could change this whole situation around,” she said. “People don’t have to live like this, for days and weeks and—who knows—maybe months without power. Things could be totally different, it does not have to be this way at all.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

17 percent

If you add up all the money every Caribbean country makes in a year, that’s the average percentage that is lost because of the damages caused by storms, according to the United Nations. Experts say that trend will only get worse as the planet warms.