In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things

David Beckam

The fossil-fuel industry can be relied on to fight these shifts. Last autumn, a utility company in Oklahoma announced that it would charge fourteen hundred dollars to disconnect residential gas lines and move home stoves and furnaces to electricity. Within days, other utilities followed suit. That’s why the climate movement is increasingly taking on the banks that make loans for the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure. Last year, the International Energy Agency said that such expansion needed to end immediately if we are to meet the Paris targets, yet the world’s biggest banks, while making noises about “net zero by 2050,” continue to lend to new pipelines and wells. The issue came to the fore earlier this year, when Joe Biden nominated Sarah Bloom Raskin to the position of vice-chair for supervision at the Federal Reserve. “There is opportunity in pre-emptive, early and bold actions by federal economic policy makers looking to avoid catastrophe,” Raskin wrote in 2020. And it’s why certain lawmakers mobilized to stop her nomination. Senator Patrick Toomey, of Pennsylvania, who was the Senate’s sixth-biggest recipient of oil-and-gas contributions during his last campaign, in 2016 (he is not running for reëlection this year), said that Raskin “has specifically called for the Fed to pressure banks to choke off credit to traditional energy companies.” She’s tried, in other words, to extinguish the flames a little—and on Monday, for her pains, Manchin effectively derailed her nomination, saying that he would vote against her, because she “failed to satisfactorily address my concerns about the critical importance of financing an all-of-the-above energy policy.” On Tuesday, she withdrew her nomination.

The shift away from combustion is large and novel enough that it bumps up against everyone’s prior assumptions—environmentalists’, too. The fight against nuclear power, for example, was an early mainstay of the green movement, because it was easy to see that if something went wrong it could go badly wrong. I applauded, more than a decade ago, when the Vermont legislature voted to close the state’s old nuclear plant at the end of its working life, but I wouldn’t today. Indeed, for some years I’ve argued that existing nuclear reactors that can still be run with any margin of safety probably should be, as we’re making the transition—the spent fuel they produce is an evil inheritance for our descendants, but it’s not as dangerous as an overheated Earth, even if the scenes of Russian troops shelling nuclear plants added to the sense of horror enveloping the planet these past weeks. Yet the rapidly falling cost of renewables also indicates why new nuclear plants will have a hard time finding backers; it’s evaporating nuclear power’s one big advantage—that it’s always on. Farmer’s Oxford team ran the numbers. “If the cost of coal is flat, and the cost of solar is plummeting, nuclear is the rare technology whose cost is going up,” he said. Advocates will argue that this is because safety fears have driven up the cost of construction. “But the only place on Earth where you can find the cost of nuclear coming down is Korea,” Farmer said. “Even there, the rate of decline is one per cent a year. Compared to ten per cent for renewables, that’s not enough to matter.”

Accepting nuclear power for a while longer is not the only place environmentalists will need to bend. A reason I supported shutting down Vermont’s nuclear plant was because campaigners had promised that its output would be replaced with renewable energy. In the years that followed, though, advocates of scenery, wildlife, and forests managed to put the state’s mountaintops off limits to wind turbines. More recently, the state’s public-utility commission blocked construction of an eight-acre solar farm on aesthetic grounds. Those of us who live in and love rural areas have to accept that some of that landscape will be needed to produce energy. Not all of it, or even most of it—Jacobson’s latest numbers show that renewable power actually uses less land than fossil fuels, which require drilling fifty thousand new holes every year in North America alone. But we do need to see our landscape differently—as Ezra Klein wrote this week in the Times, “to conserve anything close to the climate we’ve had, we need to build as we’ve never built before.”

Corn fields, for instance, are a classic American sight, but they’re also just solar-energy collectors of another sort. (And ones requiring annual applications of nitrogen, which eventually washes into lakes and rivers, causing big algae blooms.) More than half the corn grown in Iowa actually ends up as ethanol in the tanks of cars and trucks—in other words, those fields are already growing fuel, just inefficiently. Because solar panels are far more efficient than photosynthesis, and because E.V.s are far more efficient than cars with gas engines, Jacobson’s data show that, by switching from ethanol to solar, you could produce eighty times the amount of automobile mileage using an equivalent area of land. And the transition could bring some advantages: the market for electrons is predictable, so solar panels can provide a fairly stable income for farmers, some of whom are learning to grow shade-tolerant crops or to graze animals around and beneath them.

Another concession will strike many environmentalists more deeply even than accepting a degraded landscape, and that’s the notion that reckoning with the climate crisis would force wholesale changes in the way that people live their lives. Remember, the long-held assumption was that renewable energy was going to be expensive and limited in supply. So, it was thought, this would move us in the direction of simpler, less energy-intensive ways of life, something that many of us welcomed, in part because there are deep environmental challenges that go beyond carbon and climate. Cheap new energy technologies may let us evade some of those more profound changes. Whenever I write about the rise of E.V.s, Twitter responds that we’d be better off riding bikes and electric buses. In many ways we would be, and some cities are thankfully starting to build extensive bike paths and rapid-transit lanes for electric buses. But, as of 2017, just two per cent of passenger miles in this country come from public transportation. Bike commuting has doubled in the past two decades—to about one per cent of the total. We could (and should) quintuple the number of people riding bikes and buses, and even then we’d still need to replace tens of millions of cars with E.V.s to meet the targets in the time the scientists have set to meet them. That time is the crucial variable. As hard as it will be to rewire the planet’s energy system by decade’s end, I think it would be harder—impossible, in fact—to sufficiently rewire social expectations, consumer preferences, and settlement patterns in that short stretch.

So one way to look at the work that must be done with the tools we have at hand is as triage. If we do it quickly, we will open up more possibilities for the generations to come. Just one example: Farmer says that it’s possible to see the cost of nuclear-fusion reactors, as opposed to the current fission reactors, starting to come steeply down the cost curve—and to imagine that a within a generation or two people may be taking solar panels off farm fields, because fusion (which is essentially the physics of the sun brought to Earth) may be providing all the power we need. If we make it through the bottleneck of the next decade, much may be possible.

The market for electrons is predictable, meaning that solar panels installed on farmland can provide a fairly stable income for farmers.Photograph by George Rose / Getty

There is one ethical element of the energy transition that we can’t set aside: the climate crisis is deeply unfair—by and large, the less you did to cause it, the harder and faster it hits you—but in the course of trying to fix it we do have an opportunity to also remedy some of that unfairness. For Americans, the best part of the Build Back Better bill may be that it tries to target significant parts of its aid to communities hardest hit by poverty and environmental damage, a residue of the Green New Deal that is its parent. And advocates are already pressing to insure that at least some of the new technology is owned by local communities—by churches and local development agencies, not by the solar-era equivalents of Koch Industries or Exxon.

Advocates are also calling for some of the first investments in green transformations to happen in public-housing projects, on reservations, and in public schools serving low-income students. There can be some impatience from environmentalists who worry that such considerations might slow down the transition. But, as Naomi Klein recently told me, “The hard truth is that environmentalists can’t win the emission-reduction fight on our own. Winning will take sweeping alliances beyond the self-identified green bubble—with trade unions, housing-rights advocates, racial-justice organizers, teachers, transit workers, nurses, artists, and more. But, to build that kind of coalition, climate action needs to hold out the promise of making daily life better for the people who are most neglected right away—not far off in the future. Green, affordable homes and water that is safe to drink is something people will fight for a hell of a lot harder than carbon pricing.”

These are principles that must apply around the world, for basic fairness and because solving the climate crisis in just the U.S. would be the most pyrrhic of victories. (They don’t call it “global warming” for nothing.) In Glasgow, I sat down with Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives and the current speaker of the People’s Majlis, the nation’s legislative body. He has been at the forefront of climate action for decades, because the highest land in his country, an archipelago that stretches across the equator in the Indian Ocean, is just a few metres above sea level. At COP26, he was representing the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a consortium of fifty-five of the nations with the most to lose as temperatures rise. As he noted, poor countries have gone deeply into debt trying to deal with the effects of climate change. If they need to move an airport or shore up seawalls, or recover from a devastating hurricane or record rainfall, borrowing may be their only recourse. And borrowing gets harder, in part, because the climate risks mean that lenders demand more. The climate premium on loans may approach ten per cent, Nasheed said; some nations are already spending twenty per cent of their budgets just paying interest. He suggested that it might be time for a debt strike by poor nations.

The rapid fall in renewable-energy prices makes it more possible to imagine the rest of the world chipping in. So far, though, the rich countries haven’t even come up with the climate funds they promised the Global South more than a decade ago, much less any compensation for the ongoing damage that they have done the most to cause. (All of sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for less than two per cent of the carbon emissions currently heating the earth; the United States is responsible for twenty-five per cent.)

Tom Athanasiou’s Berkeley-based organization EcoEquity, as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, has done the most detailed analyses of who owes what in the climate fight. He found that the U.S. would have to cut its emissions a hundred and seventy-five per cent to make up for the damage it’s already caused—a statistical impossibility. Therefore, the only way it can meet that burden is to help the rest of the world transition to clean energy, and to help bear the costs that global warming has already produced. As Athanasiou put it, “The pressing work of decarbonization is only going to be embraced by the people of the Global South if it comes as part of a package that includes adaptation aid and disaster relief.”

I said at the start that there is one sublime exception to the rule that we should be dousing fires, and that is the use of flame to control flame, and to manage land—a skill developed over many millennia by the original inhabitants of much of the world. Of all the fires burning on Earth, none are more terrifying than the conflagrations that light the arid West, the Mediterranean, the eucalyptus forests of Australia, and the boreal woods of Siberia and the Canadian north. By last summer, blazes in Oregon and Washington and British Columbia were fouling the air across the continent in New York and New England. Smoke from fires in the Russian far north choked the sky above the North Pole. For people in these regions, fire has become a scary psychological companion during the hot and dry months—and those months stretch out longer each year. The San Francisco Chronicle recently asked whether parts of California, once the nation’s idyll, were now effectively uninhabitable. In Siberia, even last winter’s icy cold was not enough to blot out the blazes; researchers reported “zombie fires” smoking and smoldering beneath feet of snow. There’s no question that the climate crisis is driving these great blazes—and also being driven by them, since they put huge clouds of carbon into the air.

There’s also little question, at least in the West, that the fires, though sparked by our new climate, feed on an accumulation of fuel left there by a century of a strict policy which treated any fire as a threat to be extinguished immediately. That policy ignored millennia of Indigenous experience using fire as a tool, an experience now suddenly in great demand. Indigenous people around the world have been at the forefront of the climate movement, and they have often been skilled early adopters of renewable energy. But they have also, in the past, been able to use fire to fight fire: to burn when the risk is low, in an effort to manage landscapes for safety and for productivity.

Frank Lake, a descendant of the Karuk tribe indigenous to what is now northern California, works as a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service, and he is helping to recover this old and useful technology. He described a controlled burn in the autumn of 2015 near his house on the Klamath River. “I have legacy acorn trees on my property,” he said—meaning the great oaks that provided food for tribal people in ages past—but those trees were hemmed in by fast-growing shrubs. “So we had twenty-something fire personnel there that day, and they had their equipment, and they laid hose. And I gave the operational briefing. I said, ‘We’re going to be burning today to reduce hazardous fuels. And also so we can gather acorns more easily, without the undergrowth, and the pests attacking the trees.’ My wife was there and my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter. And I lit a branch from a lightning-struck sugar pine—it conveys its medicine from the lightning—and with that I lit everyone’s drip torches, and then they went to work burning. My son got to walk hand-in-hand down the fire line with the burn boss.”

Lake’s work at the Forest Service involves helping tribes burn again. It’s not always easy; some have been so decimated by the colonial experience that they’ve lost their traditions. “Maybe they have two or three generations that haven’t been allowed to burn,” he said. There are important pockets of residual knowledge, often among elders, but they can be reluctant to share that knowledge with others, Lake told me, “fearful that it will be co-opted and that they’ll be kept out of the leadership and decision-making.” But, for half a decade, the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network—organized by various tribes, the Nature Conservancy, and government agencies, including the Forest Service—has slowly been expanding across the country. There are outposts in Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, and in other parts of the world. Lake has travelled to Australia to learn from aboriginal practitioners. “It’s family-based burning. The kids get a Bic lighter and burn a little patch of eucalyptus. The teen-agers a bigger area, adults much bigger swaths. I just saw it all unfold.” As that knowledge and confidence is recovered, it’s possible to imagine a world in which we’ve turned off most of the man-made fires, and Indigenous people teach the rest of us to use fire as the important force it was when we first discovered it.

Amy Cardinal Christianson, who works for the Canadian equivalent of the Forest Service, is a member of the Métis Nation. Her family kept trapping lines near Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, but left them for the city because the development of the vast tar-sands complex overwhelmed the landscape. (That’s the hundred and seventy-three billion barrels that Justin Trudeau says no country would leave in the ground—a pool of carbon so vast the climate scientist James Hansen said that pumping it from the ground would mean “game over for the climate.”) The industrial fires it stoked have helped heat the Earth, and one result was a truly terrifying forest fire that overtook Fort McMurray in 2016, after a stretch of unseasonably high temperatures. The blaze forced the evacuation of eighty-eight thousand people, and became the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

“What we’re seeing now is bad fire,” Christianson said. “When we talk about returning fire to the landscape, we’re talking about good fire. I heard an elder describe it once as fire you could walk next to, fire of a low intensity.” Fire that builds a mosaic of landscapes that, in turn, act as natural firebreaks against devastating blazes; fire that opens meadows where wildlife can flourish. “Fire is a kind of medicine for the land. And it lets you carry out your culture—like, why you are in the world, basically.”

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