Our tight focus on America as it fights the slide into authoritarianism this fall is right and good, but it does allow dismal developments in the rest of the world to pass by with too little notice. These developments range from the poisoning of Vladimir Putin’s main rival to the acceleration of China’s campaign against the Uighur Muslim minority to the rapid moves to start construction on one of the planet’s ugliest infrastructure projects, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, or eacop.
As the environmental journalist Fred Pearce notes in his excellent account of the pipeline plan for Yale Environment 360 (one of the few mentions it has received in the Western press), “the middle of a global pandemic, during which oil demand is in freefall and prices at rock bottom, might seem an odd moment to boost the world’s oil production.” But Big Oil (in this case, the French giant Total and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation) never rests: its plans are always years in the making, and this one just happens to be coming to fruition now. By April of next year, construction could conceivably begin on the pipeline, which will need to be heated at all times to keep the oil flowing, and which will stretch nine hundred miles, from the shores of Lake Albert, on the Uganda-Congo border, to the Tanzanian port of Tanga, where the crude will be loaded into tankers.
The proposed route looks almost as if it were drawn to endanger as many animals as possible: the drilling pads are in the Murchison Falls National Park, in Uganda, and the pipeline runs through the Taala Forest Reserve and encroaches on the Bugoma Forest (home to large groups of chimpanzees) before crossing into Tanzania and the Biharamulo Game Reserve, home to lions, buffalo, elands, lesser kudu, impalas, hippos, giraffes, zebras, roan antelopes, sitatungas, sables, aardvarks, and the red colobus monkey. The pipeline also manages to traverse the Wembere steppe, a seasonal paradise for birds, and hundreds of square kilometres of elephant habitat. (Indeed, a charismatic elephant is featured in the online petition that an international nonprofit organization launched last week opposing the plan.) And, once the pipeline gets to Tanzania, tankers the length of three football fields will try to transport the oil out through mangrove swamps and over coral reefs, in waters teeming with dugongs and sea turtles. If all this makes you feel a little sad, that’s the correct emotion: at this point in the planet’s building extinction crisis, it’s sickening to endanger wildlife. (Those ashy red colobus monkeys in the Tanzanian reserve, for instance, are one of just five colonies left in the world.)
But if this project—the longest heated pipeline ever planned—gets built, it will also take out wide swaths of farmland, almost all of it tilled by peasant farmers. Some have already been evicted, and are living in concrete houses in a “resettlement village.” But many are still on the land, and still fighting, in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, that indigenous people in the American West have been steadfast in their battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. The Africa team at 350.org, the global climate campaign that I helped found, has been helping to coördinate the opposition, which is not an easy task. Tanzania’s government is increasingly authoritarian, and, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has seen the Parliament remove the country’s age limit for its rulers, allowing him to maintain control for the foreseeable future. These governments want the pipeline, arguing that it will bring economic benefit, but, if history is any indication, that benefit won’t be widely shared. By now, the evidence of a “resource curse,” which leaves oil-exporting countries with lower G.D.P.-growth rates, is overwhelming. But the unwavering support of ruling governments for the project is why much of the opposition has been aimed instead at the banks that would finance the plan (South Africa’s Standard Bank and Japan’s Sumitomo chief among them) and at Total.
The French oil giant, if it proceeds with the pipeline, would make a total mockery of its pretensions to climate leadership. Already, fourteen French cities have filed a complaint against the company for its failure to live up to the Paris climate accords. (Paris, as it happens, is in France.) Total’s oil imperialism is also giving the lie to President Emmanuel Macron’s soaring climate rhetoric. As he told the United Nations last year, climate politics is too often a cynical morality play. “In essence, we have offered an outlet for our young people’s impatience,” Macron said. “We have given them the opportunity to express themselves. We tell them, ‘We hear you, you’re amazing.’ And then, all too often, we continue on with whatever we were already doing. That will not work.” True enough, and the eacop is perhaps the best example of that precise failing. What France has started in Africa needs to stop, and it is not too late to do that. Almost too late, but not quite.
Passing the Mic
Erin Brockovich has been famous since at least 2000, when Julia Roberts played her in a movie about her fight, in the early nineteen-nineties, to safeguard the drinking water of a small Southern California town. But she’s kept fighting ever since, and her new book, “Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It,” has just been published.
The story we’ve told ourselves is that the Clean Water Act really made America’s water safe, and that stories like Flint are an exception. But it sounds like that’s not the case?
The Clean Water Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act are good laws. The problem really comes down to enforcement.
The Clean Water Act was created to protect large bodies of water, such as streams, rivers, and bays, from being destroyed by things like sewage, biological and radioactive waste, and industrial and agricultural waste. But this one act was violated more than half a million times between 2004 and 2009, and most of the big polluters evaded any kind of punishment. And these violations continue to pile up. In 2015, community water systems reported more than eighty thousand infractions of the Safe Water Drinking Act, which include everything from violating health standards, to failing to test for contaminants, to not reporting contamination to authorities or the public.
In Flint, the city should have taken action as soon as they discovered a problem. Instead, they covered it up and told residents the water was fine, exposing a hundred thousand people, including thousands of children, to dangerous levels of lead, which is why so many officials there have stepped down, been fired, or are facing felony charges.
Plus, millions of people across the country are drinking water with lead violations that are as bad as or worse than Flint.
A 2019 report from the N.R.D.C., Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Coming Clean found widespread violations and poor enforcement of the S.W.D.A., with communities of color hit the hardest. Between June, 2016, and May, 2019, there were more than a hundred and seventy thousand violations across community water systems, affecting nearly forty per cent of the U.S. population.
Your title implies that it’s up to us as individuals to deal with this. What’s the right mix between individual action and getting the government to do its job?
I think the title implies that we can all be more proactive when it comes to our water. This book is for everyone. I wrote it to moms, to city-council members, to water-treatment operators, to E.P.A. officials, to senators, and to Big Oil execs alike. My hope is that everyone can open their eyes to this important issue and make a difference. Sometimes we forget that government employees work for us. It’s vital to put the pressure on, when needed, for the government to do its job. We have to remember that much of our drinking-water pollution comes from industry and agriculture. The government needs to set standards for pollution so we don’t end up back in 1969, with the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, Ohio, bursting into flames from industrial waste and sewage.
I’d love to see business leaders and entrepreneurs working on these issues with us, and get away from an us-versus-them mentality. We all need to drink the water. We all need to work on solutions to fix this crisis.
Climate change makes drought more likely and flood more common. What’s it likely to do to water quality?
We’re already seeing the impact of climate change on water. As temperatures rise in different parts of the country, we lose snowfall, which is what populates our freshwater bodies.
Less snowmelt means lower water levels. The Washington Post reported that the Colorado River has seen a climate-induced drop that amounts to roughly 1.5 billion tons of water—or the yearly water supply for about fourteen million Americans.
Those rising temps also contribute to toxic algae blooms, which have increased many times over since the nineteen-sixties, and which affect the health of people and marine ecosystems, along with local and regional economies.
Our own E.P.A. says that nutrient pollution (too much nitrogen and phosphorus) makes the problem worse, leading to more severe and frequent blooms, along with warm water, water stagnation, and stormwater runoff that contains pesticide residue from lawns and commercial farms.
Plus, increasingly intense and powerful storms, such as Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Matthew, and Florence, flush large quantities of sewage and pollutants into freshwater supplies like bays, rivers, and lakes, causing big problems for our water and wastewater infrastructure.
As we noted last week, the oil industry is attempting to “pivot to plastics” in an attempt to keep demand up for petroleum even as electric vehicles start to undercut the demand for gas. Kingsmill Bond, of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, provides an extensive report indicating why this destructive strategy probably won’t work—bottom line, we’re learning to use less plastic, and to recycle it more effectively.
Individual action, at this point, isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. But a new tool from YouChangeEarth.org does point people in useful directions, allowing them to plug in their particular circumstances and get an individualized plan of action—a plan that usually includes joining in the movement building that can change policy at a large scale. Meanwhile, the builders of EnvisionClimate.org have put together a Web site that makes it easy to try to persuade swing-state voters to cast their ballots with the climate in mind.
Last week, I wrote about the rapid escalation of global warming across the planet, using what was then the accepted figure for the energy imbalance created by our greenhouse gases: about three-quarters of a watt per square metre. A new paper this week, here ably explained by James Hansen, the planet’s premier climatologist and a co-author of the report, shows that that number is now higher, closing in on nine-tenths of a watt per square metre. Not good news.
For the first time, the world last year added more solar and wind power, combined, than any other form of energy generation, according to a new accounting from Brian Eckhouse, at Bloomberg. That’s happy news, but, as he points out, any effort to meet climate targets requires not just adding more renewables but quickly shutting down gas- and coal-fired power. That’s not happening anywhere nearly fast enough. But the life of fossil-fuel execs just keeps getting harder: a U.K. government assessment found that electricity generated from sun and wind was thirty- to fifty-per-cent cheaper than officials had originally estimated.
As if to make sure that no one could have any doubts about the meaning of November’s election, President Trump’s E.P.A. chief said last week that the Administration will weaken environmental regulations even more if Trump is reëlected.
The fires raging on the West Coast are beyond description (though Rebecca Solnit does an admirable job in today’s Guardian). As cities in California, such as San Luis Obispo, saw temperatures reach a preposterous hundred and twenty degrees, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest wildfires the state has ever seen are burning at the same time. In Oregon, much of the city of Medford, with a population of eighty-two thousand people, is under an evacuation order. In Fort Collins, Colorado, triple-digit temperatures on Saturday were followed, two days later, by snowfall, as a massive front moved through. Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, declared a state of emergency and called the extreme weather a “once-in-a-generation event,” but, sadly, I think she’s almost certainly wrong. Still, people are doing their best to slow the damage. Even amid the flames, Oregonians continued trying to resist plans for a liquefied-natural-gas pipeline, which would run more than two hundred miles across the southwest corner of the state to Coos Bay.
Albedo is a measure of the planet’s reflectivity, which, sadly, is decreasing, as white Arctic ice changes to blue seawater. Here is the band Al Bedo and the Reflectors performing “Too Much Oil.”
Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.