Refugia Newsletter #50
California hat trick, talking whales, eco-Barbie, and wildlife bridges
So… this the 50th edition of this newsletter!? Oof, we’ve come a long way since I started this little fortnightly endeavor in November of 2021. Thank you, readers, for giving me a reason to keep up with climate news, practice my summary and quoting skills, and send out encouraging vibes. Community makes the work lighter and more joyful. Thanks for being part of this space, where we continue to explore how people of faith can join the work to mitigate, adapt, and bring hope in a climate-stressed world.
Calvin University, where I teach, has three “core commitments” woven like threads into our curriculum. “Environmental sustainability” is one of them—that’s the mild, neutral term we use. I’m teaching our half-semester orientation course for first-year students, in which we introduce these commitments along with our more general orientation to university’s mission. Here’s what I learned about my class of 20 students: They’re scared and they’re mad.
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They took the SASSY survey from the Yale Climate Communications people, and all the respondents in the class were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change. For our readings, I had them take a look at the IPCC Sixth Assessment Summary, Laudato si’, and an article about fossil fuel disinformation, among other things.
From my “here’s the deal on climate change” slide deck: my students found this slide especially grim. Note that this is an if-things-don’t-change scenario. (Thanks to friend Tim Van Deelen for the image/source.)
These young people, serious about their Christian faith, are furious. They’re furious about the deception of the fossil fuel industry and the legacy left to them by older generations. Many of my students come from at least somewhat conservative Evangelical spaces, and a few reported being mocked, shut down, and laughed at for their concerns about climate. They are angered and bewildered by all the grown-up denial around them.
However, reading evidence that people around the globe, including people of faith, are working seriously on the “wicked problem” of climate change—this was enormously encouraging to these students. If you have a trusting relationship with some young adults, see if they need some encouragement this week, OK?
This Week in Climate News
In bad news, the World Meterological Association has officially declared summer 2023 the hottest on record. August reached 1.5C global average above pre-industrial levels—not the same as an annual average calculated over time, of course, but still. Meanwhile, extraordinarily heavy rainfall on September 10 burst dams in Libya and caused flooding that displaced 40,000 and killed at least 5,000 (maybe as many as 11,000) people. The impacts are here. People are suffering.
Which is why 75,000 people converged on the streets of Manhattan to call for an end to fossil fuels. This was part of New York City’s Climate Week, which coincided with the UN Climate Ambition Summit. The resolve, the efforts, are good news, even if progress feels too slow and too uncertain.
Some Third Act folk on the march in NYC. Image credit: Bill McKibben from The Crucial Years newsletter, Sept. 17.
That brings us to the big news from California. Three major news stories in the past two weeks are likely to set key precedents for climate action elsewhere in the US and beyond.
SB253 and Scope 3 emissions. The California legislature passed a new law, SB253, that promises to peel back those lovely layers of greenwashing and climate denial. Kristoffer Tigue of Inside Climate News sums it up:
Under a landmark piece of legislation, passed by state lawmakers this week, any company making at least $1 billion a year would be obligated to disclose their annual carbon emissions or risk being excluded from California’s $3.4 trillion market. If signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, some of the biggest corporations in the world, including Amazon, Exxonmobil and Walmart, would have to start reporting their emissions in 2027, including those related to their supply chains, known as Scope 3 emissions. California-based companies would be required to begin in 2026.
Scope 3 is the trick here. Scope 1 and 2 has to do with the emissions your own company is responsible for. Scope 3, however, deals with everyone you do business with, too. One of the fun results will be that huge corporations will have to look at the fossil fuel investments of their banks. People marching in the streets may not compel big banks to stop loaning money to fossil fuel interests, but—as Bill McKibben points out—if a company like Apple says that they can’t bank with you unless you stop funding fossil fuels, well, hmmmm. That’s motivating.
The state of California sued several of the world’s biggest oil companies on Friday [Sept. 15], claiming their actions have caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and that they deceived the public by downplaying the risks posed by fossil fuels.
The lawsuit seeks to force big fossil fuel companies to create “a fund that would be used to pay for recovery from extreme weather events and mitigation and adaptation efforts across the state.” The idea is to have those who knowingly caused damage to pay for that damage, rather than continuing to shunt off the costs onto taxpayers.
This lawsuit is only possible because of the continued revelations about the fossil fuel industry’s history of deception. The evidence is abundant and certain enough now to hold up in court. In fact, The Washington Post recently published yet another investigative report detailing these nefarious shenanigans.
Amy Westervelt, self-proclaimed “climate litigation nerd,” remarked that this case draws strength from legal strategies honed in many other cases:
What's exciting about this case is that precisely because it is coming on the heels of those others, it's taken the strengths of all of them—the fraud claims of Massachusetts AND the liability claims of Rhode Island, Hawaii, et al AND the collaborative enterprise of the Puerto Rico climate RICO—and rolled them all into a super-case. And then of course, California is massive: its the nation's most populous state, the world's fifth largest economy, and it faces every climate impact there is.
Westervelt’s article details expectations for how this case is expected to be a “watershed moment” in using legal strategies to compel action. For even more commentary on the case, here’s an analysis of the lawsuit from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
30 by 30 conservation law. And it’s a California hat trick. On September 11, the California legislature overwhelmingly passed another law, which “codifies Governor Newsom’s 2020 pledge to protect 30 percent of the state’s land and coastal waters by 2030. The law “had already passed through the State Senate with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority.”
One final piece of news just for your amusement and delight:
Barbie going plastic free? Did you know that Barbie will now be made from mushrooms? No, not really. But oh boy was it fun to see climate activist Darryl Hannah and some co-conspirators pull off a Barbie hoax that even fooled the professional media. Hannah, along with Mike Bonanno and the Barbie Liberation Organization (did you know about them?? I didn’t), created a whole media campaign announcing that Mattel was going plastic free, and they were starting with the totally compostable Eco-Warrior Barbie. Seriously, you have to watch this video they made. It’s wickedly delicious.
If you have seen the AppleTV original series Extrapolations, you know that the second episode is premised on the idea that by 2046 we will have figured out how to have conversations with humpback whales. I am on record remarking that that is a ridiculous (but narratively generative) premise, but after this week, I’m not sure the premise is so ridiculous after all.
This wonderful essay in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert invites us into the world of David Gruber, biologist and oceanographer. He’s been working with a team on deciphering the language of sperm whales. Sperm whales communicate with each other through series of clicking sounds called codas. Gruber and his team are now engaged in collecting as many sound samples as they can—a tricky endeavor involving suction-cupping bespoke devices on the whales—and then working with AI tools to decipher the creatures’ clicking patterns.
Maybe you saw the beautiful video of a sperm whale giving birth that was circulating in the last couple weeks. Well, it was Gruber’s research vessel that recorded that incredible and rarely seen event, in which “auntie” whales helped doula the birth and pilot whales and Fraser’s dolphins turned up to … celebrate? What were they doing? No one is sure. The article tells the whole story, not only of the whale birth sighting but also the fascinating details of whale language research.
I’m not pretending that Texas is on a par with California in climate action—although Texas does lead the nation in clean energy generation, surprisingly—but let’s give Texas some love for their 32 wildlife bridges. These bridges help critters cross highways, which helps the critters survive but also helps people by preventing auto accidents. Texas is using money from the Infrastructure Act to help build more bridges for animal travelers from toads to ocelots.
Corridors are crucial for helping refugia do their work because they connect refugia spaces to one another. These bridges serve as great corridors—and they’re rather beautiful, too.
I thought this was such a lovely view of the Robert L. B. Tobin Land Bridge in San Antonio. Image credit: FutureCrunch.com.
The Wayback Machine
No wayback today, just a delightful photo. This is Anza, a six-year-old German shepherd who belongs to my daughter and her husband. Ron and I are taking care of her while her Mommy and Daddy are traveling. Anza is quite in touch with her ancient, wolf-wild roots, at least when it comes to singing the song of her people: she cannot resist howling along if humans start a song. Anza kindly helped with the production of this newsletter. Thanks, pups!
Anza, artfully framed with sunlight from the window.
Thanks for reading the 50th edition of the Refugia Newsletter! I’d love to hear from you if you have comments or suggestions. Till next time, be well.
Thanks for reading Refugia Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.