State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Exxon Beware – Students and a Senator Vow to Demolish Climate Inertia

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Revkin of the Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at Read the rest here.

Slowing global warming and cutting climate risks are simple in principle: Stop adding heat-trapping pollution to the atmosphere. Stop building in harm’s way and shunting the poor and marginalized into danger zones.

Countless forces have blocked progress on both fronts. This week, I hosted a Sustain What brainstorming session on overcoming climate inertia with a senator famed for his dogged climate activism and two Columbia University students passionate about building a more just and climate-resilient society.

The students are Sofia Assab, a senior majoring in sustainable development and Gabrielle JoAnn Batzko, a graduate of Appalachian State University’s Sustainable Technology program who’s entering the Climate and Society master’s degree program at Columbia this fall.

The senator, of course, is Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat who’s been on a decade-long mission to expose the web of political money and public disinformation impeding congressional action on climate change (hashtag #webofdenial).

Columbia students and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had a cross generational brainstorm on ways to break fossil fueled blockades to climate action.

Sofia Assab

As a young person studying sustainable development, much of what I see is so many people deciding to turn a blind eye to what’s going on. And for people my age, I don’t blame them because it’s really hard to have hope for Earth or to think, oh, should I invest in a property when I’m young? Maybe that land is going to be gone in 20 or 30 years. My overarching question is just how do we begin to talk about this in the way that you say is so important, to have this in the front of our minds without a mass loss of hope?

Sheldon Whitehouse

It’s much easier to despair when you don’t understand the causes and the whole thing seems to be just coming out of the ether. What makes it easier for me to deal with is studying and understanding that this was actually a thing that was done. And it was done by the fossil fuel industry. And it was a very complex operation, but not that complex when you consider other intelligence operations that have been run around the world.

So the idea of running a big covert operation through a variety of front groups, hiding the sources of the money, having your plants in place who are basically paid to lie and dissemble.

But because we’re American and because we generally think of democracy as an honest way of doing business, we have not been as quick as we should have been to recognize the structure, the system, the purpose of this apparatus that the fossil fuel industry set up, even when scientists studied it and identified it and marked the participants. Even then, it just didn’t fit our narrative particularly well.

And so we let it grow and we let it run and we let it to do its wicked work. Now I think we’ve got to have a whole new conversation about what role corporations should have in politics after they have failed us so badly on this incredibly important issue.

And we’ve got to have a hugely important conversation about transparency in politics, because the fuel of this was dark money, anonymous money, the ability for Exxon or Marathon or API, whoever it was, to hide that it was them behind some phony front group with a name like, you know, Northhampton for Peace and Prosperity.

Gabbie Batzko

When I think of climate change, I think of the intersectionality of societal issues and disaster. When you were in Congress talking about the IPCC report and you brought up the maps of Rhode Island, it kind of describes how the geography would change based on flooding.

The people that are going to be displaced, they’re already marginalized groups. They’re going through things like student loan debt, racial, socioeconomic and gender inequality, broken indigenous treaties and rising housing costs. So they’re not just going to be experiencing climate change, but there are all these other mental, physical and financial boundaries that are already placed on of them.

How can we expect people to finance personal solutions and mitigation efforts when so many people are already struggling to pay rent or afford medical care?

What do we have to do to get government officials at all levels to begin to consider socializing climate solutions and climate aid to help create equal access to safety from the climate crisis?

Sheldon Whitehouse

I would say, Gabbie, that I think that’s starting to happen. And here is an area where I’ll give the Biden administration quite a lot of credit. I think they are really determined to have this problem solved on a pathway of environmental justice. And that correlates very well with the strong work that we’ve been doing through the American Rescue Plan, through parts at least of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and through what we’re planning in reconciliation to readjust the economic balance in the country so that it’s not the poorest who are the most taken advantage of with a tax code that’s upside down so that billionaires pay lower tax rates than their chauffeurs and their gardeners and their maids

So I think the two have to go together. This is a test of American democracy. If we can’t solve climate change and if we continue to lead basically a rigged economic system, then that sends a really terrible message to people and they will get very angry and they will vote for more people like Donald Trump.

And you’re right to see those intersectionalities because what people fundamentally want is to be heard. And to be treated fairly and to know that they’ve got a respected position in their society. And if you take those things away, there’s really no way to patch it back up.

Gabbie Batzko

At Appalachian State, I focused a lot on sustainable technology, but also the theory and application behind communication, how to go about addressing these things so that everyone kind of feels included. We were in a very rural area of North Carolina, so making sure that farmers felt like their needs were addressed and making sure that they were informed about what things they were going to be feeling from the climate crisis was really huge.

Andrew Revkin

Here’s a question for Sofia. If climate action seems so hard to engage on right now, if we flip the script is there a way to push forward with just the social connectedness part as a pathway forward?

Sofia Assab

That is actually what I’m writing my senior thesis on. I’m super fascinated by how taking care of ourselves is going to help us take care of the planet. As Gabbie said, so many people are already experiencing the impacts of climate change there. We don’t really have a good social safety net in the United States.

You can’t really think outside yourself when you’re struggling to put food on the table, to pay your medical bills, to pay for college. And my thesis, my thought, is that once we do take care of those things, people’s time and head space will open up and be able to look at their neighbor, look at the Earth and say, oh, we need to take care of this as well.

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