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Looming California budget cuts prompt push for climate ballot measure

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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Environmental groups are pressing California lawmakers to include a multibillion-dollar climate resilience bond on the November 2024 ballot, as related funding faces probable cuts in the annual state budget. Nearly 180 organizations have now signed on to a petition demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state legislators "pass a robust and equitable climate bond" for the public's consideration in the upcoming elections. "We have aligned to recommend $10 billion in investments that we view as the floor for California to continue making timely progress on its ambitious climate and natural resources commitments," the groups stated in a letter initially drafted in February but last updated in early June. California, long a national leader on environmental issues, has set lofty targets for emissions reductions in the years to come as it continues to battle drought and wildfires driven by climate change. But the state appears likely to fall short of those goals, and is in the midst of a struggle to close a looming $45 billion budget deficit, an effort that will likely include significant cuts to climate measures for the second year in a row. After California's 2022-2023 budget included $54 billion for climate action over the next five years, about $3.1 billion of that sum was slashed last year. In a January budget proposal for 2024-2025, Newsom suggested $2.88 billion in climate-related cuts, adding $3.35 billion more in his May revision, the groups noted. Stressing that "California's future sits on the edge of a knife," the petitioners warned state lawmakers that they risk "gambling with our children's future and natural heritage found nowhere else." Bond financing in California is a mechanism for long-term borrowing through which the state raises money by selling bonds to investors — repaying those sums with interest in the future. Proposed versions of ballot measures would put billions raised through bond sales toward helping gird the state against the changing climate in an effort to mitigate the impact of looming cuts. From 1986 through 2020, Californians have voted in favor of issuing $178.787 billion in bonds and against issuing $33.092 billion, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office. Among the nearly 180 groups that have signed the letter are the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club California, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Audubon California, California Environmental Voters, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. “Californians are depending on their leaders to have climate courage, not wave the white flag," Melissa Romero, deputy legislative director of California Environmental Voters, said in a statement. “Voters need a chance to support a robust, equitable climate bond." Lawmakers have a deadline of June 27 to add bond measures to the November ballot. Meanwhile, Newsom and his legislative colleagues have only until July 1 to negotiate the final terms of their annual spending plan. Discussions have come to a standstill on two similar, climate-oriented bond proposals: AB 1567, introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D) in February 2023, and SB 867, introduced around the same time by state Sen. Ben Allen (D). The former would have authorized the issuance of nearly $16 billion in bonds for projects related to drinking water, fire prevention, drought preparation, flood defense, extreme heat mitigation, clean energy and workforce development, per the bill. The latter would have supported $15.5 billion in bonds to finance initiatives related to extreme heat mitigation, biodiversity, nature-based solutions, climate-smart agriculture, park creation, outdoor access and clean energy, as well as drought, flood, water, coastal, forest and wildfire resilience. With the end-of-June ballot measure deadline approaching, negotiations within the state Legislature continue, as lawmakers weigh how they might combine and trim the two proposals. The Assembly was reportedly considering three versions that ranged from $6 billion to $10 billion, while the state Senate was looking at two options from $6.8 billion to $9 billion, according to two spreadsheets originally surfaced by Politico.  While neither Allen nor Garcia could speak to the details of the negotiations, Allen stressed the need “to be careful about how we craft it, both in terms of its scope and also its size.” “This is a challenging time financially for the state, so we certainly want to make sure that it's sized in a way that's responsible, that's going to maintain market credibility,” Allen told The Hill. Garcia last week told the Los Angeles Times that negotiators were leaning toward $9 billion, while explaining to KQED that cuts “would allow us to stay the course.” Speaking to CalMatters, Garcia described the bond as “a can’t-miss opportunity” for closing funding gaps. Asked whether he still maintained that $9 billion estimate, Garcia told The Hill that he and his Assembly colleagues worked on a $9 billion "proposed draft of priorities," and that they are currently having a "conversation" with their state Senate counterparts. Acknowledging that this is "a significantly different bond" than the one he originally introduced, Garcia expressed optimism that the legislators would come to an agreement despite the tight deadline. But the question remains whether voters will have the appetite for borrowing billions and billions of dollars in bonds. Lawmakers had previously intended to place tens of billions in bonds on the November 2024 ballot related to a variety of issues and sectors. But those intentions cooled after a $6.4 billion measure — aimed at supporting homeless and mentally ill individuals — only passed narrowly in the March primary with 50.18 percent of the vote, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Public Policy Institute of California on Friday reported that 34 percent of residents recently surveyed described now as a "good time" to issue bonds for state programs and infrastructure projects, while 64 percent said that this is a "bad time." Allen was not discouraged by those results, noting that “it's hard to feel good about just generic extra spending, if you have no idea what it's for.” Rather, he explained, people tend to become more interested when they understand that a particular investment could “help ensure that the future of the state will be a little brighter, people get more interested,” according to Allen. “We're focused on clean water and fire resiliency — all the kinds of things that are going to help make life better in the state in the future,” he said. Garcia echoed these sentiments, identifying the need "to be very specific with voters, so that they get a really good understanding of what it is that they might be seeing." Every Californian "has experienced some type of climate impact," he said, citing a range of effects from property damage to daily life disruptions. While the lawmakers have signaled that the final bill will include a sum much lower than originally intended, the nearly 180 environmental organizations — dubbed the "climate bond coalition" — are petitioning for the full $10 billion. They are also not the only voices that have been pressing for a robust climate bond's passage: so, too, are water and renewable energy interests. The Association of California Water Agencies described the state as being "underprepared to manage a water system with decreasing snowpack, less frequent precipitation and weather extremes." "State investment in water infrastructure is crucial to providing the reliable delivery of water," the association, which represents public water agencies across the state, said in a policy document. The top priorities highlighted by the agencies are improvements in dam safety and reservoir operations, as well as water recycling and desalination facilities. Offshore Wind California, a coalition of industry partners, is requesting bond funding for port infrastructure, stressing that such facilities are needed to maintain floating wind structures. "No single port will be able to serve all the needs of the offshore wind industry," the group wrote. Garcia emphasized the need to improve water infrastructure and wildfire protection and prevention, while also strengthening nature-based solutions, agriculture and community resilience. Allen, meanwhile, added that the bill must “be driven by where the public" and "our experts see the greatest need.” That public perspective, he continued, routinely returns to the issues of clean water and wildfire resilience. “When you float a bond, you're basically saying that future taxpayers and budgets should help to pay for investments that we're putting in place over the next few years,” Allen said. “Will people 30 years from now feel good about helping to pay for these investments that we put in place today?” he asked. “That has to be our guiding principle.”

Environmental groups are pressing California lawmakers to include a multibillion-dollar climate resilience bond on the November 2024 ballot, as related funding faces probable cuts in the annual state budget. Nearly 180 organizations have now signed on to a petition demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state legislators "pass a robust and equitable climate bond" for the...

Environmental groups are pressing California lawmakers to include a multibillion-dollar climate resilience bond on the November 2024 ballot, as related funding faces probable cuts in the annual state budget.

Nearly 180 organizations have now signed on to a petition demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state legislators "pass a robust and equitable climate bond" for the public's consideration in the upcoming elections.

"We have aligned to recommend $10 billion in investments that we view as the floor for California to continue making timely progress on its ambitious climate and natural resources commitments," the groups stated in a letter initially drafted in February but last updated in early June.

California, long a national leader on environmental issues, has set lofty targets for emissions reductions in the years to come as it continues to battle drought and wildfires driven by climate change. But the state appears likely to fall short of those goals, and is in the midst of a struggle to close a looming $45 billion budget deficit, an effort that will likely include significant cuts to climate measures for the second year in a row.

After California's 2022-2023 budget included $54 billion for climate action over the next five years, about $3.1 billion of that sum was slashed last year. In a January budget proposal for 2024-2025, Newsom suggested $2.88 billion in climate-related cuts, adding $3.35 billion more in his May revision, the groups noted.

Stressing that "California's future sits on the edge of a knife," the petitioners warned state lawmakers that they risk "gambling with our children's future and natural heritage found nowhere else."

Bond financing in California is a mechanism for long-term borrowing through which the state raises money by selling bonds to investors — repaying those sums with interest in the future. Proposed versions of ballot measures would put billions raised through bond sales toward helping gird the state against the changing climate in an effort to mitigate the impact of looming cuts.

From 1986 through 2020, Californians have voted in favor of issuing $178.787 billion in bonds and against issuing $33.092 billion, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office.

Among the nearly 180 groups that have signed the letter are the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club California, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Audubon California, California Environmental Voters, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

“Californians are depending on their leaders to have climate courage, not wave the white flag," Melissa Romero, deputy legislative director of California Environmental Voters, said in a statement. “Voters need a chance to support a robust, equitable climate bond."

Lawmakers have a deadline of June 27 to add bond measures to the November ballot. Meanwhile, Newsom and his legislative colleagues have only until July 1 to negotiate the final terms of their annual spending plan.

Discussions have come to a standstill on two similar, climate-oriented bond proposals: AB 1567, introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D) in February 2023, and SB 867, introduced around the same time by state Sen. Ben Allen (D).

The former would have authorized the issuance of nearly $16 billion in bonds for projects related to drinking water, fire prevention, drought preparation, flood defense, extreme heat mitigation, clean energy and workforce development, per the bill.

The latter would have supported $15.5 billion in bonds to finance initiatives related to extreme heat mitigation, biodiversity, nature-based solutions, climate-smart agriculture, park creation, outdoor access and clean energy, as well as drought, flood, water, coastal, forest and wildfire resilience.

With the end-of-June ballot measure deadline approaching, negotiations within the state Legislature continue, as lawmakers weigh how they might combine and trim the two proposals.

The Assembly was reportedly considering three versions that ranged from $6 billion to $10 billion, while the state Senate was looking at two options from $6.8 billion to $9 billion, according to two spreadsheets originally surfaced by Politico. 

While neither Allen nor Garcia could speak to the details of the negotiations, Allen stressed the need “to be careful about how we craft it, both in terms of its scope and also its size.”

“This is a challenging time financially for the state, so we certainly want to make sure that it's sized in a way that's responsible, that's going to maintain market credibility,” Allen told The Hill.

Garcia last week told the Los Angeles Times that negotiators were leaning toward $9 billion, while explaining to KQED that cuts “would allow us to stay the course.” Speaking to CalMatters, Garcia described the bond as “a can’t-miss opportunity” for closing funding gaps.

Asked whether he still maintained that $9 billion estimate, Garcia told The Hill that he and his Assembly colleagues worked on a $9 billion "proposed draft of priorities," and that they are currently having a "conversation" with their state Senate counterparts.

Acknowledging that this is "a significantly different bond" than the one he originally introduced, Garcia expressed optimism that the legislators would come to an agreement despite the tight deadline.

But the question remains whether voters will have the appetite for borrowing billions and billions of dollars in bonds.

Lawmakers had previously intended to place tens of billions in bonds on the November 2024 ballot related to a variety of issues and sectors. But those intentions cooled after a $6.4 billion measure — aimed at supporting homeless and mentally ill individuals — only passed narrowly in the March primary with 50.18 percent of the vote, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Public Policy Institute of California on Friday reported that 34 percent of residents recently surveyed described now as a "good time" to issue bonds for state programs and infrastructure projects, while 64 percent said that this is a "bad time."

Allen was not discouraged by those results, noting that “it's hard to feel good about just generic extra spending, if you have no idea what it's for.”

Rather, he explained, people tend to become more interested when they understand that a particular investment could “help ensure that the future of the state will be a little brighter, people get more interested,” according to Allen.

“We're focused on clean water and fire resiliency — all the kinds of things that are going to help make life better in the state in the future,” he said.

Garcia echoed these sentiments, identifying the need "to be very specific with voters, so that they get a really good understanding of what it is that they might be seeing."

Every Californian "has experienced some type of climate impact," he said, citing a range of effects from property damage to daily life disruptions.

While the lawmakers have signaled that the final bill will include a sum much lower than originally intended, the nearly 180 environmental organizations — dubbed the "climate bond coalition" — are petitioning for the full $10 billion.

They are also not the only voices that have been pressing for a robust climate bond's passage: so, too, are water and renewable energy interests.

The Association of California Water Agencies described the state as being "underprepared to manage a water system with decreasing snowpack, less frequent precipitation and weather extremes."

"State investment in water infrastructure is crucial to providing the reliable delivery of water," the association, which represents public water agencies across the state, said in a policy document.

The top priorities highlighted by the agencies are improvements in dam safety and reservoir operations, as well as water recycling and desalination facilities.

Offshore Wind California, a coalition of industry partners, is requesting bond funding for port infrastructure, stressing that such facilities are needed to maintain floating wind structures.

"No single port will be able to serve all the needs of the offshore wind industry," the group wrote.

Garcia emphasized the need to improve water infrastructure and wildfire protection and prevention, while also strengthening nature-based solutions, agriculture and community resilience.

Allen, meanwhile, added that the bill must “be driven by where the public" and "our experts see the greatest need.” That public perspective, he continued, routinely returns to the issues of clean water and wildfire resilience.

“When you float a bond, you're basically saying that future taxpayers and budgets should help to pay for investments that we're putting in place over the next few years,” Allen said.

“Will people 30 years from now feel good about helping to pay for these investments that we put in place today?” he asked. “That has to be our guiding principle.”

Read the full story here.
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‘The time is right’ for US to catch up on high-speed rail, says British Amtrak exec

With half a dozen US rail projects in the works, Andy Byford thinks Americans will soon clamor for 200mph train linesAfter years of dashed hopes, delays and the all-consuming dominance of the car and airplane, high-speed trains may finally be about to have their breakthrough moment in the United States, according to one of the country’s top rail executives.Half a dozen high-speed rail projects across the US are currently planned or have already started construction, with a gush of federal infrastructure dollars, a supportive White House, and rising angst over snarled highways and the climate crisis all helping bring the prospect of bullet trains, belatedly, closer than ever before to the American public. Continue reading...

After years of dashed hopes, delays and the all-consuming dominance of the car and airplane, high-speed trains may finally be about to have their breakthrough moment in the United States, according to one of the country’s top rail executives.Half a dozen high-speed rail projects across the US are currently planned or have already started construction, with a gush of federal infrastructure dollars, a supportive White House, and rising angst over snarled highways and the climate crisis all helping bring the prospect of bullet trains, belatedly, closer than ever before to the American public.“This is the golden opportunity for the US to join that high-speed club with all the benefits that it would bring,” said Andy Byford, a British executive who was nicknamed “Train Daddy” during a spell overseeing New York City’s subways. Since last year, he’s been senior vice-president of high-speed rail at Amtrak. “There’s no question the US is for now the outlier when it comes to high-speed rail.“But I think once we get one route up successfully, people will clamor for more. We believe the time is right for this where the topography, population and so on makes sense. I think if it’s not going to happen now, I wonder if it ever will.”Andy Byford rides the subway in New York in 2019 during his brief stint as head of the New York City Transit Authority. Photograph: Marc A Hermann/MTAHigh-speed trains, capable of 200mph (322km/h) or more, have long become commonplace in countries including France, Germany, Japan and even Morocco. Yet the US, despite being an early rail pioneer, has instead prioritized the build-out of vast and ever-widening highways, often choked with traffic and rammed through razed neighborhoods, supplemented by a matrix of flights linking even relatively close cities.This is gradually changing. In April, work started on building a high-speed rail project connecting Las Vegas to southern California, promising 200mph trains that will cut the normal four-hour drive time in half by the time of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2028. “If they pull it off it will be remarkable,” said Byford. “That would be practically a mile a day [of track] construction.”California has another high-speed rail project that has labored under grueling delays and ballooning costs over the past decade that aims to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. Projects in the earlier stages of planning include efforts to link Atlanta, Georgia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as Chicago, Illinois, to St Louis, Missouri, and Vancouver, British Columbia, to Portland, Oregon.Brightline, the company behind the Las Vegas to California route, has already completed a line running from Miami to Orlando, Florida, running at slower, but still brisk, pace of 125mph, while Amtrak is looking to expand its class of east coast trains that can currently get to 150mph.Byford, meanwhile, is spearheading an Amtrak program to revive a moribund plan connecting Dallas and Houston with a high-speed track that will run the fabled Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains, offering people who have to drive three and a half hours down the I-45, one of the deadliest roads in the US, the option of a 205mph journey that will take around 90 minutes, with a stop at Texas A&M University between the two cities.“These trains would have the highest average speed in the world, which would be a real source of prestige for the state of Texas if we were able to go ahead,” Byford said. “We believe there is a very, very strong case.”Amtrak estimates the whizzing trains would remove 12,500 cars from the clogged I-45 as well as negate flights making the relatively short 240-mile hop, slashing planet-heating emissions. For those who want to spend a full day of their lives traveling from Dallas to Houston by train, there are currently two Amtrak services each day that go via San Antonio, taking, with a lengthy stopover, an incredible 23 hours in total, about an hour more than it would take to bicycle between the two cities.The prospects for high-speed rail have been buoyed by recent support, such as the federal bipartisan infrastructure law that retained much of the American fixation upon funding roads but also provided a cash injection to rail. In December, Joe Biden, once known as “Amtrak Joe” due to his regular use of trains when he was a US senator, announced $8.2bn to secure rail corridors to accelerate the building of high-speed rail in what the White House called “historic investments in world-class rail”.Major barriers remain for high-speed rail, however. “I’m not going to sugarcoat the remaining challenges,” Byford said of the Texas project, which still needs to acquire around 80% of the land needed for its route, get federal permission to use Japanese trains, pass environmental reviews and then raise, via partnerships with private companies and others, the $30bn or so needed to build a system that, in the most optimistic scenario, will be completed by 2031.Eye-watering costs and delays have dogged the California scheme, meanwhile, which has rocketed from a $33bn to at least a $113bn project amid contentious re-routes and political wrangling. Opponents of high-speed rail have found reliable allies among Republicans in Congress, who complain it is an expensive indulgence that tramples upon the property rights of rural Americans.skip past newsletter promotionThe planet's most important stories. Get all the week's environment news - the good, the bad and the essentialPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotion“If you want to look in the dictionary, under the word ‘boondoggle’, you would probably find the California high-speed rail project process,” said Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican congressman. In May, the two top Republicans in the House and Senate transportation committees, Garrett Graves and Ted Cruz, wrote to the US Department of Transportation criticizing the administration’s support for “this highly questionable endeavor”.In Texas, opposition from landowners, hostile state lawmakers and lobbying airlines sunk a previous effort to bring high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas, along with a mooted extension to Austin and San Antonio, in the 1990s. Texas Central picked up the idea of the Houston to Dallas line in 2009, only to put the plan on ice following court challenges and the Covid pandemic in 2022, prior to its resurrection under Amtrak.Building any sort of rail is difficult in a state with a particular zeal for the primacy of cars, with 97% of Texas’s entire transport budget, by law, going to the expansion and maintenance of roads. “People are flocking to Texas and we can’t just keep widening our highways forever,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates. “More people are understanding this but it’s been very slow going. We may now be starting to crawl before we walk and then run.”Objections remain, with Byford recently traveling to a ranch near Dallas to meet the Texans Against High-Speed Rail group, to assure them Amtrak wouldn’t use eminent domain to secure needed farmland. Some lawmakers remain unimpressed.Joe Biden arrives to speak at an Amtrak maintenance facility in Bear, Delaware, on 6 November 2023. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP“This project does not only impact rural Texas but all of the United States,” said Jake Ellzey, a Republican congressman who represents a district in the path of the planned rail route. “In a time of a global food shortage, we cannot allow our farmland to be destroyed, and taxpayer dollars squandered for an unsustainable and unnecessary project like this.”Still, optimism is growing among supporters of high-speed rail. Byford is deluged by emails from enthused rail fans suggesting sometimes outlandish ideas, such as bullet trains from New York to Los Angeles, but he can envision a more realistic future of swift connections between US cities lying in the “sweet spot” of distance from each other, around 200 to 600 miles apart.“There are so many cities like that in the US, just in the right zone for high-speed rail,” said Byford. “I hope that we will be able to deliver a network around the north-east, Florida, Texas, on the west coast and the midwest. There’s lots of great city pairings.”Most Americans “don’t know the joy of going downtown to downtown over 200mph without having to go out to the airport, having to line up in security, and then taxi on the runway and take off and land probably miles away from where you actually want to be”, Byford said, adding that the experience of avoiding traffic jams or strolling from a cathedral-like train station to get a meal and a drink also remains a largely foreign concept.“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said. “I think now is our best opportunity to deliver that, there’s no question.”

‘We want the audience to feel there is hope’: how to write a play about the climate crisis, by the team behind The Jungle and Little Amal

The latest play from the writing duo focuses on the landmark 1997 climate conference in Kyoto, Japan. During rehearsals, they talk about the importance of consensus, and the challenges of turning negotiations into dramaThe rehearsal room in London’s Bethnal Green has a concentrated, businesslike and anticipatory atmosphere. It is filled with people sitting at tables with microphones in front of them, as though a conference were about to begin, which, in a sense, it is. On the stage’s periphery are directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and the playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, co-founders of the Good Chance company, and I can see, even from a distance, how purposeful they all are. This is the same team that was responsible for The Jungle, the internationally celebrated show about the theatre the two Joes set up in Calais’s refugee camp. Now, they are halfway through rehearsals of a fascinating, meticulously researched and high-risk new project, Kyoto, about the UN’s climate conference of 1997.The conference’s stated aim was to cut global greenhouse gases by 5% by 2012 and was the first building block in the introduction of climate legislation across the world, starting the process that led to the adoption of the Paris agreement in 2015, which included emissions pledges for all. The Kyoto protocol was signed, against seemingly impossible odds, by 84 countries and more than 100 more have since joined. Its effectiveness has been limited - the developed nations all met their targets (some with some judicious offsetting with other countries’ reductions), but global emissions have since soared. However, as the first summit at which the world’s nations started to come together, it has become an historic environmental landmark. Continue reading...

The rehearsal room in London’s Bethnal Green has a concentrated, businesslike and anticipatory atmosphere. It is filled with people sitting at tables with microphones in front of them, as though a conference were about to begin, which, in a sense, it is. On the stage’s periphery are directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and the playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, co-founders of the Good Chance company, and I can see, even from a distance, how purposeful they all are. This is the same team that was responsible for The Jungle, the internationally celebrated show about the theatre the two Joes set up in Calais’s refugee camp. Now, they are halfway through rehearsals of a fascinating, meticulously researched and high-risk new project, Kyoto, about the UN’s climate conference of 1997.The conference’s stated aim was to cut global greenhouse gases by 5% by 2012 and was the first building block in the introduction of climate legislation across the world, starting the process that led to the adoption of the Paris agreement in 2015, which included emissions pledges for all. The Kyoto protocol was signed, against seemingly impossible odds, by 84 countries and more than 100 more have since joined. Its effectiveness has been limited - the developed nations all met their targets (some with some judicious offsetting with other countries’ reductions), but global emissions have since soared. However, as the first summit at which the world’s nations started to come together, it has become an historic environmental landmark.Rehearsals for Kyoto in Bethnal Green, London. The play opens in Stratford on 25 June. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The ObserverGood Chance’s project has (if the phrase can pass in context) been in the pipeline for a while and been taken on by Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey – like an exciting statement of intent – as part of their first season as joint artistic directors of the RSC.At the centre of the drama is Don Pearlman, the morally ambiguous American lawyer and smooth operator who earned himself the tag “high priest of the carbon club”. Pearlman was never obliged to reveal who funded him, although the likelihood is that he was supported by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the big oil companies. A formidable spanner in the conference’s works, he is to be played by Tony-nominated Stephen Kunken – one of those actors who has you instantly in his thrall. In rehearsal, he stands on stage as relaxed and ready as a conductor who has nothing but contempt for his orchestra: cool in his stance, tweaking his bow tie, his sense of his own rightness laconically unassailable.Pearlman is in patriotic cahoots with Nancy Crane, representing the US delegation, and I watch them, riveted by the throwaway casualness of their self-interested exchanges – a sinister flexing of shared power. Other countries in attendance are represented by an international cast, and the giant oil companies are reconfigured as “the seven sisters”, stirrers of trouble, intended to suggest the witches in Macbeth. In the front two rows of the theatre there will be space for audience members to sit, alternating with the actors playing delegates. Decisions about the climate crisis – the point could not be clearer – involve us all.How can we find a common ground? Because we can keep arguing but… how do we move forward?There are negotiations about negotiations in rehearsal before the lunch break is declared and I get to meet Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy over tea and sandwiches in a bright conference room of our own. In their early 30s, they are delightful company: engaged and engaging. It is extraordinary how seamlessly they pick up on each other’s thoughts, as if they were of one mind (it was sometimes hard to be sure, in retrospect, who had said what). They met at Oxford as English undergraduates and have been writing plays together for 15 years. But I tell them that what I have been puzzling over is: why Kyoto? How does going back in time contribute to thinking about the climate crisis now?They were drawn to Kyoto, Robertson volunteers, partly because it was “the first time this consensus had happened and it was about asking: how do you turn round the juggernaut of the world – this huge oil tanker – from a total lack of consensus and lack of certainty in the science?” Murphy describes Kyoto as “a parable about agreement”. And they explain that, long before hitting upon their subject, they had been asking questions about the “scary” world in which we all live, and had begun to see how critical consensus was. The Jungle, they add, touched on this too – asking how people from different countries can live together: “How can we find a common ground? Because we can keep arguing but… how do we move forward?”Little Amal, the giant animatronic refugee puppet created by Robertson and Murphy’s Good Chance, in Dublin last month. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty ImagesWhat, then, does agreement depend upon? “Human will, energy, force of character – the conviction there is a way forward together. But the even bigger question is: do we have what it takes to see the other side even when we might not like what we see?”A play about a conference could be a dead weight but the text is entertainingly precise. The pedantry involved in negotiations is used to build tension in a way that is masterly – fiddling with language while the planet burns. And incredibly, the Joes have achieved this seamlessness jointly. Their affinity makes it easy to imagine a writing process as shared as their conversation: “We write with our backs to each other and our heads in the Google doc…”; “I can see where his mind is…”; “You begin to think about where that cursor hovers and what is going through that brain…”; “Sometimes you don’t have to speak out loud to understand what the other is thinking.”Actors from Shakespeare’s Globe perform Hamlet at the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp at a theatre set up by Good Chance, 2016. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesThey watched six hours of footage from the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) of the conference and admit they would have found it impenetrable had they not done months of research. But knowing the characters, it became “really exciting”. They talked to delegates, chief scientists and to Pearlman’s widow. But for them, the issue remained: “Can you take these rooms in which the great questions of our time are discussed and put them on stage?” The conundrum that has arisen in rehearsals is about Pearlman’s motivation. Did he not believe the climate science? Or did he think that the costs of taking action were too great?Taking action is something Murphy and Robertson have not hesitated to do themselves. Looking back on their achievements with Good Chance, do they ever wonder at their sheer nerve in moving into the Calais camp? “We do sometimes look back at our 25-year-old selves and think: that was a bit mad… There are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t build a theatre in a refugee camp, such as the idea of being a white saviour… or another objection: what is your right even to go into this place when you can leave whenever you like?”skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionRobertson and Murphy’s play The Jungle at the Playhouse, London, in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The GuardianBut today they are rejoicing because: “We keep going to incredible permanent citizenship ceremonies in the UK for some of our best friends who we met in Calais and we see how these incredible artists – we know they are because we were working with them – are growing. It is really moving.” They celebrate, too, the continuing travels of Little Amal, the giant animatronic refugee puppet (also a Good Chance production) who after her first walk through Europe, Robertson says, was recognised to have “a million more footsteps in her”.But I say that we need now to return to the subject of Kyoto, if only to consider the ending, which is, in mid-rehearsal, still being fine-tuned. Robertson and Murphy praise the readiness of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin to re-examine and, where necessary, rethink. Daldry, they say, has “an amazing ability to make you feel better and more daring than you are. He does it for his actors too – you see it in the room every single day.”Nothing in the show will be simplified for convenience. And it is likely to be a complicated watch because of Pearlman’s calculatedly ambiguous presence. The play seems, in part, to be an uncomfortable inquiry into the extent to which we have something of Pearlman in us: self-interest, willed blindness, determination to sustain an unsustainable way of life. But Robertson insists they are not peddling pessimism: “I want the audience to feel the euphoria that something is possible, that there is hope, that we can do this together.” Then they amend this by saying hope cannot be the only message given the reality of where we are. When I put it to them that the ending of their current draft is anything but hopeful and press them on whether they feel gloomy about the climate crisis themselves, they retreat behind “that’s a good question” – ambivalence their comfort zone.Later, I go back to them to try to pin them down further about how they see the way forward and to ask what our governments should be doing. In its way, their reply is a mission statement: “We’re artists, not climate experts or policy-makers. But it seems to us that we have to change the weather, literally and metaphorically. How do we stop the defining question of our time being dragged into a wider culture war of disagreement that only benefits a small group of people? We have to conduct our discourse in a more compassionate and productive way, and make arguments that bold, innovative and immediate mitigation will not only prevent climate catastrophe but also create jobs and livelihoods for the future, strengthen our economies and ensure energy security in an increasingly dangerous world.”

Why this small state is picking a fight with Big Oil

Vermont has enacted the first state law requiring fossil fuel firms to pay for damages caused by climate change. Will it survive a near-certain legal challenge?

Nearly a year after catastrophic flooding struck Vermont, the city of Barre confronts the overwhelming task of steeling itself for the next climate disaster.Two bridges need to be raised. Barre’s north end “literally needs to be rebuilt,” said Mayor Thom Lauzon, who was recently elected and now oversees the city’s recovery. Of the 300 properties damaged by the flooding, many are still in various states of disrepair, and at least 50 are uninhabitable.Across the country, state and local leaders are scrambling to find the money they need to protect their communities from worsening disasters fueled by climate change. For Barre, needed flood mitigation projects will cost the city an estimated $30 million over the next five years, Lauzon said.Yet Vermont has a new answer to this problem.Earlier this month, it became the nation’s first state to require fossil fuel companies and other big emitters to pay for the climate-related damage their pollution has already caused statewide. While conservative legal experts are skeptical the law will survive challenges, some Vermonters said they are both grateful and a little nervous that one of the nation’s least populous states has picked a fight with one of America’s most powerful industries.“I’m proud to have this state stand up and say, ‘Look, you need to be held accountable, and you need to help us with the damage we incurred,’” Lauzon said. “But I’m also scared to death. I feel like we’re a pee wee football team going up against the 2020 New England Patriots.”The Vermont law comes as oil and gas companies face dozens of climate lawsuits, both in the United States and abroad. While only a few have succeeded — and they are on appeal — they pose a growing threat and add to the companies’ potential liabilities. If Vermont’s novel approach endures, it could reverberate across the industry.Republicans are pushing back, arguing that individual states cannot apply their own laws to a global pollutant. Last month, Republican attorneys general in 19 states asked the Supreme Court to block the climate change lawsuits brought by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island against fossil fuel companies.Vermont’s law authorizes the state to charge major polluters a fee for the share of greenhouse gas emissions they produced between 1995 and 2024. It is modeled on the 1980 federal Superfund law, which forces polluting companies to clean up toxic waste sites.The law doesn’t spell out how much money should be paid; instead, it tasks the state treasurer with assessing the damage Vermont has suffered from climate change and what it will cost to prepare for future impacts. The final tally is expected to be comprehensive, factoring in an array of possible costs from rebuilding and raising bridges and roads to lower worker productivity from rising heat.Bills similar to Vermont’s have been introduced in several states, including California, Maryland and Massachusetts. Last week, New York lawmakers passed a climate superfund law that would require polluters to pay $3 billion a year for 25 years. It is now awaiting Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature.The timing of the Vermont law was no accident, said Ben Edgerly Walsh, the climate and energy program director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Memories of last July’s flooding, which inundated the state capitol of Montpelier, damaged thousands of homes and trapped people in small mountain towns, are still fresh.Over the last year, Vermonters have also endured a freak late-spring frost that damaged crops, hazy skies from smoke blown south from hundreds of wildfires in Canada, and more flooding in mid-December. All these events primed state lawmakers to tackle climate change at the beginning of 2024.“When we brought this idea to legislators, they came to it with a very open mind in a way that may have taken more time, more convincing, in another year,” Edgerly Walsh said. “But this was a moment we just knew we needed to act.”As disaster recovery costs mount, it has not been lost on state leaders that oil companies are enjoying massive profits. In 2023, the warmest year on record, the two largest U.S. energy companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, together made more than $57 billion.It might seem unlikely for a state like Vermont, with a population just under 650,000, to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. The state’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, expressed skepticism in a letter to the secretary of the Vermont Senate, writing, “Taking on ‘Big Oil’ should not be taken lightly. And with just $600,000 appropriated by the Legislature to complete an analysis that will need to withstand intense legal scrutiny from a well-funded defense, we are not positioning ourselves for success.”Yet Vermont’s small budget — it has the lowest GDP in the country — means that it feels the rising risks from heavy rains more acutely than wealthier states. A report by Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that helps communities recover from disasters, found that Vermont ranked fifth nationally in per capita disaster relief costs from 2011-2021, with $593 spent per resident.The costs are only expected to climb. A 2022 study from University of Vermont researchers predicted that the cost of property damage from flooding alone may top $5.2 billion over the next 100 years.Ultimately, the governor allowed the law to go into effect without his signature, saying he understood “the desire to seek funding to mitigate the effects of climate change that has hurt our state in so many ways.”Legal challenges will inevitably follow — the only question is when.The oil and gas industry’s top lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, has said that states don’t have the power to regulate carbon pollution and can’t retroactively charge companies for emissions allowed under the law. It has also emphasized individuals’ responsibility for climate change, noting that Vermont residents use fossil fuels to heat their homes and power their cars. Scott Lauermann, a spokesman for the group, said API is “considering all our options to reverse this punitive new fee.”“I think the courts are going to have problems with the idea that Vermont can penalize the companies for past actions that were completely legal and the state itself relies on,” said Jeff Holmstead, an energy lawyer who served in the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. “I’m skeptical this will actually pass muster.”Supporters and environmentalists involved in drafting the law said they believed they had created a legally defensible way to recover damages from polluters by modeling it after the Superfund law, which has been repeatedly upheld in court. Several legal experts said the state had also taken a more conservative approach than others by requiring a study before assessing companies’ liability, ensuring the fines levied against them are proportional to the amount of damage caused by their products.Cara Horowitz, executive director of the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said that, inevitably, fossil fuel companies will challenge any bills Vermont submits for damages. But that is years off, she said, and the industry is likely to move sooner than that.The lawsuits “will start soon and last a long time,” Horowitz said. “It would surprise me if they don’t preemptively try to undermine the entire exercise by declaring the whole thing unlawful.”In Barre, Lauzon said he isn’t confident litigation over the law will be resolved in his lifetime. But even if the fossil fuel companies are never made to pay, he said, the law’s passage was the right thing to do.“I can’t look at the north end, I can’t look at the city of Barre and say no one needs to be held accountable,” he said.

The world is farming more seafood than it catches. Is that a good thing?

Both aquaculture and fisheries have environmental and climate impacts — and they overlap more than you'd think.

A new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has found that more fish were farmed worldwide in 2022 than harvested from the wild, an apparent first. Last week, the FAO released its annual report on the state of aquaculture — which refers to the farming of both seafood and aquatic plants — and fisheries around the world. The organization found that global production from both aquaculture and fisheries reached a new high — 223.3 million metric tons of animals and plants — in 2022. Of that, 185.4 million metric tons were aquatic animals, and 37.8 million metric tons were algae. Aquaculture was responsible for 51 percent of aquatic animal production in 2022, or 94.4 metric tons.  The milestone was in many ways an expected one, given the world’s insatiable appetite for seafood. Since 1961, consumption of seafood has grown at twice the annual rate of the global population, according to the FAO. Because production levels from fisheries are not expected to change significantly in the future, meeting the growing global demand for seafood almost certainly necessitates an increase in aquaculture.  Though fishery production levels fluctuate from year to year, “it’s not like there’s new fisheries out there waiting to be discovered,” said Dave Martin, program director for Sustainable Fisheries Partnerships, an international organization that works to reduce the environmental impact of seafood supply chains. “So any growth in consumption of seafood is going to come from aquaculture.” But the rise of aquaculture underscores the need to transform seafood systems to minimize their impact on the planet. Both aquaculture and fisheries — sometimes referred to as capture fisheries, as they involve the capture of wild seafood — come with significant environmental and climate considerations. What’s more, the two systems often depend on each other, making it difficult to isolate their climate impacts.  A worker removes a stack of oyster baskets during harvest. Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images “There’s a lot of overlap between fisheries and aquaculture that the average consumer may not see,” said Dave Love, a research professor at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.  Studies have shown that the best diet for the planet is one free of animal protein. Still, seafood generally has much lower greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of protein from land-based animals. And given many people’s unwillingness or inability to go vegan, the FAO recommends transforming, adapting, and expanding sustainable seafood production to feed the world’s growing population and improve food security. But “there’s a lot of ways to do aquaculture well, and there’s a lot of ways to do it poorly,” said Martin. Aquaculture can result in nitrogen and phosphorus being released into the natural environment, damaging aquatic ecosystems. Farmed fish can also spread disease to wild populations, or escape from their confines and breed with other species, resulting in genetic pollution that can disrupt the fitness of a wild population. Martin points to the diesel fuel used to power equipment on certain fish farms as a major source of aquaculture’s environmental impact. According to an analysis from the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown, swapping out fossil fuel-based generators on fish farms for renewable-powered hybrids would prevent 500 million to 780 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2050.  Other areas for improvement will vary depending on the specific species being farmed. In 2012, a U.N. study found that mangrove forests — a major carbon sink — have suffered greatly due to the development of shrimp and fish farming. Today, industry stakeholders have been exploring how new approaches and techniques from shrimp farmers can help restore mangroves.  Meanwhile, wild fishing operations present their own environmental problems. For example, poorly managed fisheries can harvest fish more quickly than wild populations can breed, a phenomenon known as overfishing. Certain destructive wild fishing techniques also kill a lot of non-targeted species, known as bycatch, threatening marine biodiversity. But the line between aquaculture and fish harvested from the wild isn’t as clear as it may seem. For example, pink salmon that are raised in hatcheries and then released into the wild to feed, mature, and ultimately be caught again are often marketed as “wild caught.” Lobsters, caught wild in Maine, are often fed bait by fisherman to help them put on weight. “It’s a wild fishery,” said Love — but the lobster fishermen’s practice of fattening up their catch shows how human intervention is present even in wild-caught operations.  On the flipside, in a majority of aquaculture systems, farmers provide their fish with feed. That feed sometimes includes fish meal, says Love, a powder that comes from two sources: seafood processing waste (think: fish guts and tails) and wild-caught fish.  All of this can result in a confusing landscape for climate- or environmentally-conscientious consumers who eat fish. But Love recommends a few ways in which consumers can navigate choice when shopping for seafood. Buying fresh fish locally helps shorten supply chains, which can lower the carbon impact of eating aquatic animals. “In our work, we’ve found that the big impact from transport is shipping fresh seafood internationally by air,” he said. Most farmed salmon, for example, sold in the US is flown in.  From both a climate and a nutritional standpoint, smaller fish and sea vegetables are also both good options. “Mussels, clams, oysters, seaweed — they’re all loaded with macronutrients and minerals in different ways” compared to fin fish, said Love.  This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world is farming more seafood than it catches. Is that a good thing? on Jun 14, 2024.

How hot weather can tamper with your words

A new study finds that politicians tend to use shorter words in speeches on hot days.

Heat waves don’t just make you sweat — they can also mess with your brain. It’s been established that hot weather can result in lower scores on math tests and higher rates of aggression, ranging from mean-spirited behavior to violent crime. A small but growing body of research suggests it can also influence how people talk.  Politicians tend to use shorter words in speeches when the temperature outside is 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, according to a study published in the journal iScience on Thursday. The analysis looked at 7 million speeches across eight countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark, Spain, and Germany — comparing them against the average temperature the day they were delivered. Cold days didn’t produce the same effect. Understanding the consequences of heat on cognitive abilities is becoming particularly important as the climate warms, said Risto Conte Keivabu, a co-author of the study who researches climate change at the Max Planck Institute of Demographic Research in Germany.  On days hotter than 81 degrees F, the simpler language politicians used was equivalent to losing half a month of education. That result is likely an underestimate, Conte Keivabu said, since the study tried to “disentangle the impact of heat from all the possible confounding factors in the most conservative way possible.” Looking at just the data from Germany, researchers found the effect was comparable to a four-month reduction in education, he said. The speeches were measured using Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which assess how difficult a text is to understand based on the length of the words and sentences. The study found that adults over 57 years old were more sensitive to heat, based on the German data, with temperatures in the range of 70-75 degrees F linked with changes in their speech. Heat is especially dangerous for older adults, who have a harder time cooling down because of weaker blood circulation and deteriorating sweat glands. Other studies support the idea that heat can tamper with our words — though more for the reason that it can worsen your mood. Hate speech tends to rise with the thermometer: The number of tweets in the U.S. using pejorative or discriminatory language jumped by up to 22 percent during extreme heat, according to a study from 2022. Researchers have observed a similar phenomenon on Chinese social media, with people using more negative language on very hot days. Unlike social media posts, however, speeches are typically prepared in advance, which makes politicians’ shift to less complex language on hot days more surprising. The researchers posit that the psychological effects of heat could “influence a speaker to simplify speech or diverge from prepared remarks due to impaired cognitive function and comfort.” So how is it that a heat wave outside can alter the quality of speech indoors? The study puts forward a few theories. Maybe even a short exposure to heat can cause problems, like waiting for a train during a commute or taking a break outside; or, conversely, uncomfortable temperatures outdoors might lead people to stay inside where the lack of fresh air could hinder their cognitive abilities. Another possibility is that people tend to sleep worse when they’re hot, which makes it harder to think straight the next day. Using simpler language isn’t necessarily bad — in fact, it’s often easier to understand. But when someone uses less complex language over time, that can indicate cognitive decline, according to Conte Keivabu. “We don’t know if this leads towards outcomes when it comes to the decision-making of politicians or how effective they are in conveying their messages,” he said. Researchers have found that using more generic wording can be an early warning sign of dementia, a pattern detected in authors’ books and politicians’ speeches. Heat isn’t the only environmental factor that might subtly be influencing us to say one thing instead of another. A study in 2019 found that exposure to air pollution similarly led to a reduction in the complexity of speeches by members of the Canadian parliament, the equivalent of losing nearly three months of education. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How hot weather can tamper with your words on Jun 14, 2024.

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