Atlanta’s “Cop City” and the Struggle for Climate Justice

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 12

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

Along the South River, in the southwest corner of DeKalb County, Georgia, lies a forested area of about 300 acres that has been owned by the nearby City of Atlanta for over a century. It was once part of a vastly larger wooded landscape, home to the Muskogee (Creek) people. They gave the river and forest the name “Weelaunee.”

In 2021, Atlanta officials decided to split 85 acres off this remnant of the Weelaunee forest and lease it to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization, for construction of a $90 million tactical training center. If built, it will be one of the country’s largest such facilities and include an entire “mock village” in which cops can practice doing the kinds of things cops do. 

For the past two years, a broad, loose coalition comprising neighborhood associations, schools, environmental groups, justice activists, civic leaders, and forest defenders has been pushing back hard against what they call “Cop City”. Writing for Atlanta magazine in January, Timothy Pratt captured the sheer breadth of the coalition’s motives and goals: 

These disparate groups have in common opposition to the training center, with sometimes differing rationales. Some see the importance of preserving intact forests, as ecosystems, amid a climate crisis increasingly being felt in the Southeast—but may support building the training center elsewhere. Some worry about further contaminating a forest and river that are already contaminated. Others question the wisdom of investing tens of millions of public dollars in policing—particularly to build a training center in a majority-Black area that has seen decades of disinvestment. Yet others see a connection between environmental contamination and the neglect of majority-Black neighborhoods in the Atlanta metro, concerns exacerbated by a haphazard process for collecting public input on the proposed facility. At the center of it all is a piece of land that has already endured centuries of contesting visions for what people in Atlanta, particularly Black people, need and deserve.

Two months later, in The Guardian, Pratt reported on a media blitz by city officials scrambling to build support for the training center—an effort that ran head-on into a surge of resistance by community members and groups. Will Potter, the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, was also in Atlanta to follow the struggle, and told Pratt, “You get the feeling everybody is talking about this; everybody knows it’s going on. It’s like the issue has saturated the public discourse; it’s permeated everywhere.”

Manuel Paez Terán

Meanwhile, forest defenders have camped and protested, both under and up in the trees, for more than a year, while enduring repeated police raids and the killing by police of one of their own: Manuel Paez Terán, a Venezuelan eco-activist known as Tortuguita (“Little Turtle”), in January. During protests prompted by the killing (in which of Tortuguita was riddled with 57 gunshot wounds), dozens of forest defenders have been arrested on state “domestic terrorism” charges, 23 of them during a concert.

A position statement by Defend the Atlanta Forest, a self-described “autonomous movement for the future of South Atlanta” captures the tangle of issues at the heart of the defenders’ struggle:

The fight[s] against ecological destruction and racialized violence in Atlanta, and beyond, are inextricably linked. Today, climate collapse disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups such as Atlanta’s Black communities. Rather than investing in solutions to the environmental crisis, governments are investing in heavier policing, especially of those disadvantaged groups. Atlanta’s tree canopy is one of its main sources of resiliency in the face of climate change. [But] rather than address the problems as they really present themselves, world and local leaders are hurling us into the fire. As we fight for a life worth living, the system seems prepared to prop up its petroleum-based economy with tear gas and lines of riot police.

Colonialism, then and now

Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, first the English and then US settlers encroached on millions of acres of Muskogee lands across a broad swath of Florida and Georgia that included the Weelaunee forest. Then, about 200 years ago, the federal government seized all of the Muskogee territory outright. The stolen forest was soon converted to a plantation worked first by enslaved labor and later through sharecropping. In 1922, the plantation owners sold the property to the City of Atlanta. On it, the city built a “prison farm” where inmates would grow food for their fellow incarcerated people. The farm, notorious for abuse of prisoners, especially Black prisoners, operated all the way up to 1990, when it was abandoned. The forest has since reclaimed the acreage, thanks to the Southeast’s favorable climate for lush plant growth. But now, if Cop City is built, the long, cruel, racist history of this plot of land will soon take up where it left off three decades ago.

East Palestine, Ohio

Plans for Cop City emerged from a corporate process, not a democratic one. Of its entire cost, two-thirds, $60 million, has been pledged by the Atlanta Police Foundation, whose board of directors is drawn from a who’s who of Atlanta-based corporations, including Delta Airlines, Waffle House, Home Depot, Georgia Pacific, Equifax, Accenture, Wells Fargo, and UPS. Morgan Simon, a senior contributor to Forbes, has compiled a list of some of the major Atlanta-area donors supporting the branch of the foundation that, it appears, will be funding Cop City. Among them are Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, UPS, Gas South (which sells fossil gas in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and New Jersey), Georgia Pacific (which grinds up zillions of trees to make paper pulp), Rollins Inc. (which performs chemical pest control), and Norfolk Southern Railway (which delivered clouds of hydrogen chloride and phosgene to East Palestine, Ohio, with its catastrophic derailment in February). With eyebrows raised, Simon notes that four of the Cop City funders—Chick-fil-A, UPS, Coca-Cola, and Norfolk Southern— “all made prior racial equity commitments in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.”

If the project comes to fruition, this corporate investment in police militarization will have heavy ecological consequences. In 2021, the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and 15 other environmental justice groups sent a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council opposing construction of the facility. The letter charged that, among other impacts, it would release into the atmosphere large amounts of carbon that the forest ecosystem has been capturing from the air and storing for decades. It would also, they wrote, “leave the surrounding areas susceptible to stormwater flooding, which is Atlanta’s top natural disaster, continually increasing in intensity due to climate change.” And, the letter said, by bulldozing a significant portion of the forest and draining wetlands within it, the project would imperil “one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region, as well as an important site for migratory and wading birds.” As a further consequence, research shows, environmental injustice will reverberate far beyond the Cop City construction site.

Urban forests and climate justice

Atlanta, which has more tree cover than any other major US city, has been nicknamed “the city in a forest.” But today, its wooded areas are under constant pressure from development. Cutting down and paving over a chunk of Atlanta’s largest forest to build something akin to a movie set for ersatz urban conflict would deal a huge blow to the livability of the surrounding area. And that blow would land hardest on marginalized communities. A 2017 meta-analysis of 40 academic research reports on the relationship between urban forests and race found that predominantly Black residential areas had more tree cover on private property than other areas, suggesting that perhaps “minority residents have a stronger preference for vegetation than other groups.” However, Black neighborhoods tended to have much less tree cover on their public land, suggesting that decisions by municipal policymakers tend to produce “inequity in public service provision.” Through historical happenstance, the predominantly Black neighborhoods around the Weelaunee forest fragment, having an unusually large public urban forest close by, are a sharp exception to that trend. Now that prized local asset is under threat.

The neighborhoods are not so lucky in other respects. More than one-fourth of the residents live in poverty. In the vicinity are six landfills, five prisons, the ruins of now-demolished public housing, and a lot of dirty industry. Given that, the forest is all the more a local treasure; the last thing residents want is to see it partially destroyed to build Cop City. 

Weelaunee and other urban forests are crucial to environmental justice, and in the hot, humid Southeast, to climate justice in particular. In all but six of the 175 most populous cities of the United States, the average person of color endures more intense summer heat than the average non-Latino white person. Overall, Black residents are hit by more than twice the urban heat impact that white residents endure. And it’s getting worse. Dr. Brian Stone, an urban-planning professor at Georgia Tech, told Atlanta magazine models predict that with global climate change, by 2030 heat waves like the historic one that hit Atlanta in 1995 will be “fairly routine—we’ll probably see it every couple of years, instead of every 10 or 20 years.” 

Stone says that an electrical grid failure coinciding with an intense heat wave “is probably the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine in the United States.” He estimates that if a blackout hits during a heat wave as severe as the one endured in 1995, fully 70 percent of Atlanta’s population would experience life-threatening indoor temperatures. The paucity of facilities to provide relief for people with inadequate housing, or none at all, would further heighten the peril. There are only five public cooling centers in the entire city, the magazine noted, and they aren’t required to have backup power generators.

With those dangers looming, the last thing the people of southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County need is local deforestation. Dr. Cassandra Johnson Gaither, who researches the relationship between social vulnerability and resource use for the US Forest Service in Georgia, says, “Cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the urban heat island effect, so the more green tree canopy you have, the more cooling there is for homes and people.” In a 2021 report, scientists at Yale University and Imperial College London concluded, “Maintenance and expansion of urban forests rather than generic urban greening is . . . a key factor for mitigating” urban summer heat. Urban trees have been shown to dramatically reduce summer temperatures, cutting by 7 percent the amount of energy required to cool US homes. That saves households $7.8 billion annually while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Johnson Gaither points out that “urban forests also act as a check on the constant stream of pollutants being emitted in the surrounding area, and studies have shown that has human health benefits.” More generally, she adds, “The more trees you have in the surrounding area, the better people’s physical and mental health is. Just being near trees, near urban green spaces, research shows, has calming effects.” Researchers at North Carolina State University have indeed found that spending time in places like urban forests improves mental health.

Can Cop City be stopped?

Before the Weelaunee forest was targeted by the police foundation, a coalition of southwest DeKalb County residents and environmental, civic, and community groups had begun urging the establishment of a conservation area 10 times larger, which they would call the South River Forest. The project, still aspirational, would expand and interconnect the forest, five existing public parks, and some well-wooded neighborhoods, all of them in that corner of the county. The coalition, of course, opposes having the police facility plopped down in the midst of the Weelaunee forest, which they envision as the biggest gem in an “emerald necklace of connected public greenspaces” bordering economically distressed southeast Atlanta.

The original plan for Cop City called for a 150-acre site, notes Atlanta’s Pratt, but community opposition early on managed to get the plan whittled down to the current 85 acres. The South River Forest Coalition, the forest defenders, and other groups are carrying on the struggle to push the acreage all the way down to zero and scuttle the Cop City idea entirely. But others see the project, with its heavy backing from City Hall and big business, as an inevitability that will just have to be reckoned with. The goals then would come down to limiting damage to the local environment and quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. while carrying on the long struggle against systemic racism, rights abuses, and the culture of killing in the police department.    

I asked Johnson Gaither what the consequences would be, for both the forest and its human neighbors, if a fate that some now see as unavoidable does come to pass. With Cop City occupying almost 30 percent of the forest’s current acreage, won’t the ecological integrity of the entire area be undermined? 

“Yeah,” she said, “that’s sort of the 64-million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Given that uncertainty, she added, some in the local community are just trying to limit the damage, whatever it may be: “I understand that groups of residents have been organizing, requesting that buffers be added around the new training facility. They’ve been in constant dialogue with the police to say, ‘Well, if you want to expand this, and it’s on this 85 acres, and we have to live right next to it, this is what we want, so that the impacts are reduced.’” 

Meanwhile, the broader groundswell against Cop City appears more energized than ever, so maybe, when this is all over, the trees will live on and no buffers will be needed.

Climate Policy’s on Shaky Ground in the Farm Bill

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 11

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

Members of Congress have begun drafting the 2023 “Farm Bill,” and they’ll be wrangling over it through most of the year. This legislation, passed into law anew every fifth year or so since the 1930s, has had far-reaching influence on food and farming in the United States. Each version of the bill is given its own name; the previous one, for example, was called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Given the nature of the early debate over this bill-in-the-making, it might end up deserving to be called the Food and Climate Bill of 2023. 

Over the next two years, any legislation explicitly aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. By default, the Farm Bill may now be the playing field for the only climate game in town, according to Washington-watchers such as Peter Lehner, who represents the group Earthjustice. He told Politico last month, “The farm bill is probably going to be the piece of legislation in the next two years with the biggest impact on the climate and the environment.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act beefed up several of the Farm Bill’s climate-related conservation programs to the tune of an additional $20 billion. And the Washington Post has reported that a task force of more than 80 “climate-conscious House Democrats” is working to further extend the bill’s green impact, with additional protection for existing forests; planting of new stands of trees; conservation of soil, water, and biodiversity; and research on protecting crops against climatic disasters, including drought.

Meanwhile, March 6–8, a coalition of 20 sustainable ag and farmworker groups under the banner Farmers for Climate Action held a “Rally for Resilience” in D.C. Their message: “The next Farm Bill needs to explicitly empower farmers to address climate change, by providing resources, assistance, and incentives that will allow them to lead the way in implementing proven climate solutions.”

Climate politics get dirtier

Because there are farmers and ag-related industries in every state, whether red, blue, or purple, Farm Bills routinely pass with broad bipartisan support. It’s typical, therefore, for Congress members representing rural red states to make common cause with those who represent populous blue states with big ag economies, such as California, Illinois, and Michigan. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) and the Women’s, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program also are parts of the Farm Bill, further extending its political base of support.

Controversy arises nonetheless, most often in debates over the bill’s conservation provisions. Agribusiness, for example, often sees protection of soil, air, water, and biodiversity in rural areas as detracting from or interfering with the Farm Bill’s focus on boosting production of the major commodity crops and keeping food prices low. And now that climate action is increasingly finding a home in the conservation section, pushback from the right has increased. 

The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, G. T. Thompson (R-PA) has vowed to minimize climate policy in this year’s Farm Bill, while cutting other conservation programs in favor of traditional industry-friendly spending. According to EENews, “Some Republicans are eyeing the farm bill as a chance to redirect climate money to other agriculture programs, such as crop subsidies, while other conservative lawmakers want across-the-board spending cuts.” The hardliners may even try to rescind the $20 billion for climate mitigation that the Inflation Reduction Act has directed toward the Farm Bill.

Climate denial is alive and well in Congress. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), who now chairs the conservation subcommittee of the ag committee, told Politico, somewhat fuzzily, that “CO2 is not responsible. Especially American-produced CO2, I mean we’re a tiny part of the whole thing.” Rep. John Boozman (R-AR) is trying to divert attention to just about any remotely ag-related issue that doesn’t involve climate protection. Pointing his colleagues toward a couple of favorite targets of right-wing hostility, he has called for investigations into the purchase of U.S. farmland by Chinese interests and for cuts in SNAP benefits to low-income families. Meanwhile, five House members led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) got even meaner, with a letter to President Biden urging him to “enact work requirements” for SNAP recipients. 

Feed people, not steers and SUVs 

Farm Bill debates are often complex, technical, and littered with clumsy acronyms, commodity-market arcana, and bureaucratic jargon. Only the nerdiest Congress-watchers have the attention span and patience to go deep enough into the weeds (literally, in some parts of the bill) to understand what it’s all about. Even in Congress, only a minority of members and staff have solid familiarity with the issues. This year, nearly half the members of the House of Representatives have almost zero Farm Bill experience, as they were not in office during the last debate, five years ago. But with climate at the center of this year’s debate, members on both sides of the aisle, whether well-schooled in ag issues or not, are now wading into the fray.

Most of the policies that are needed to flip U.S. agriculture’s climate impact from deleterious to beneficial are good and necessary in their own right. Even if there were no climate emergency, the nation should be adopting agricultural policies that, along with cutting emissions, can improve soil health; prevent erosion and water pollution; curb the ongoing wipeout of biodiversity; and prevent agriculture from further disrupting the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. 

The quantity of energy contained in the fossil fuels used to produce feed grains for cattle is ten times the amount of energy contained in the marketable beef that’s produced by those cattle.

The first step would be to stop doing things that not only generate greenhouse-gas emissions but also wreak ecological havoc of other sorts. If you don’t mind taking just a few steps into those weeds with me for a moment, I’d like to cite scientists at the University of Georgia and the University of New Mexico who have argued convincingly for deep cuts in the production of fuel ethanol and meat—especially grain-fed beef—actions that, they show, could achieve the greatest reductions of fossil energy use (and therefore of greenhouse gas emissions) in agriculture. The quantity of energy contained in the fossil fuels used to produce feed grains for cattle exceeds by an order of magnitude the amount of energy contained in the beef that’s produced by those cattle and sold. And the production and delivery of fuel ethanol, from the cornfield to the gas pump, requires as much or more energy (mostly from fossil fuels) as the ethanol will supply to a vehicle’s engine. 

Beef and ethanol also have a broad range of other disastrous environmental impacts.

Therefore, the most effective action Congress could take is to stop using the Farm Bill’s conservation funds to support these and other ecologically harmful, climate-busting agricultural practices. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill supported one such practice: confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as cattle feedlots and factory farms for swine and poultry. These super-polluting facilities have deeply negative impacts on both local environments and the global climate. The 2023 bill should end all support for CAFOs. And rather than pursue the expansion of ethanol production, as the Department of Agriculture is requesting, Congress should flush ethanol completely out of ag policy.  

We can’t get there with annual crops

Agriculture generates only 11 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, so reducing emissions from the farm sector, important as it is, can go only so far toward driving total U.S. emissions toward zero quickly and steeply. However, unlike other sectors of the economy, farming also has the potential to help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through nature’s preferred method of carbon sequestration: photosynthesis. 

To use U.S. farmlands and forests as reservoirs for atmospheric carbon would help to reverse a massive loss of soil carbon that began long before the age of mechanized agriculture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, native grasslands and forestlands across North America were plowed up to make way for corn, wheat, cotton, and other annual crops—replacing vast, biodiverse, perennial ecosystems with plantings of annual monocultures. Extensive root systems, alive year-round, were killed off across hundreds of millions of acres, to be replaced by the sparser, ephemeral root systems of crops that had to be resown with every growing season. For much of the year, there were now only spindly seedling roots or no living roots at all to support the soil ecosystems that had thrived before the arrival of the plow. Consequently, over subsequent decades, countless tons of carbon that had been captured by plants over millions of years went back up into the atmosphere. 

A little-discussed prize being fought over in Ukraine is the country’s deep, rich chernozem soils (similar to soils of the US prairie), which were built largely by the deep roots of perennial grasses over millions of years. Until this year, these soils supported Ukraine’s prodigious production of wheat (itself a grass species), and they have been depleted in the process. As we call for grassroots action in political and climate struggles, we need to emphasize the need for perennial grassroots movements that feed our political culture, not quick-hit annual grassroots, which tend to be parasitic on both soils and society.

Accumulating enough carbon in the soil to mitigate climate change effectively will require switching from annual to perennial crops across most of U.S. farm country, to get soils even part way back to their robust state. Fortunately, the necessity for perennial agriculture is being expressed more widely in this year’s Farm Bill discussion than in previous years, with both the scientific community and grassroots climate and sustainable-agriculture groups calling for more perennial farming systems. 

For example, a coalition called Farm Bill Law Enterprise, “a national partnership of law school programs working toward a farm bill that reflects the long-term needs of our society,” is arguing that perennial agriculture must be one of the highest priorities in the 2023 bill. In its report, titled simply, “Climate and Conservation,” the group pushes for perennial forage crops; interplanting of tree crops with annual crops; “forest farming and multi-story cropping”; perennial fruits and vegetables; and perennial cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds. The group goes on to urge more funding for research and development of perennial agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, especially on grain crops, and for “research on the economic and social conditions critical to development of perennial agriculture systems and markets.”

Needed: A fifty-year Farm Bill

Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture by ditching products such as fuel ethanol and grain-fed beef would mesh nicely with the use of perennial crops to capture more atmospheric carbon and store more of it in living roots deep in the soil. If U.S. farmers were to stop producing the bazillions of bushels of corn and soybeans that go into feeding cattle and biofuel plants, tens of millions of acres would be newly available for growing perennial range, hay, and pasture crops. From those, more modest quantities of grass-fed beef and dairy products could be produced. And each year, more and more of the lands liberated from annual feed grains could be sown to perennial food-grain crops. 

Wes Jackson and Fred Kirschenmann envisioned this sort of grand transition in their proposal for a “Fifty-Year Farm Bill” in 2009. But at the time, the breeding of perennial food-grain crops (which would be necessary to achieve that last step in the transition) was just getting started. That process is now well underway.  

Over the past two decades, efforts to domesticate and breed perennial grain-producing crops have progressed from their beginnings at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (where I work), to be taken up by research networks worldwide. These networks now include more than 50 researchers across North America and five other continents, and solid results are emerging. Development of perennial wheat is accelerating. A perennial cousin of wheat known as Kernza® is under pilot production in the U.S. Plains, the upper Midwest, and Europe. Highly productive perennial rice varieties are being grown on tens of thousands of acres in China and on a smaller scale in East Africa as well. Breeding and ecological work are continuing, with perennial food legumes and perennial grain sorghum under development, in addition to the wheat and rice.

*  *  *

The need to start a precipitous phase-out of oil, gas, and coal is more acute than ever, but federal legislation will remain out of reach as long as there’s a climate-hostile House majority. So, as the struggle against fossil fuels carries on in our states and communities, the quest for serious action in Washington on climate and ecological renewal will focus largely on the national push for a radically new kind of Farm Bill. 

It is essential both to purge fossil fuels and to perennialize agriculture. No two policies are more crucial to preventing ecological meltdown.

“Sometimes a Gas Stove Is Not Just a Gas Stove”

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 10

It’s Time, a work-in-progress, pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

A Fox News headline writer called it “Biden’s War on Your Kitchen.” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote, “The reason gas stoves are in the news is simple: There is a coordinated, calculated—and well-funded—strategy to kill them off. It’s the joint enterprise of extremely powerful climate groups, working with Biden administration officials.” (“Extremely powerful climate groups”? Where can I find them?)

The Great Gas Stove Freakout of 2023 was not a strictly right-wing or one-party phenomenon. Panic spread along the spectrum, from liberal chefs to Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In the Senate, Republican Ted Cruz teamed up with Democrat Joe Manchin to sponsor a bill that would bar the government from enforcing any rule that prohibits the sale of gas stoves or even makes them more expensive.

Gas ranges, though, are widely associated with the urban foodie culture that the right loathes, and two-thirds of them are installed in blue states. Similarly, for home heating, the Washington Post notes that “gas dominates in densely populated states with Democratic governors, including Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey [while] electricity reigns in more rural states with Republican leaders, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina,” but that state governments in New York, California, and Washington are moving to phase out gas heating.  

Despite the associations between blue politics and gas’s blue flame, the lion’s share of outrage over the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s warnings about the health hazards posed by gas stoves has come from MAGA world. And the stove affair quickly flared up into generalized appliance paranoia. Fox News, for one, warned that Uncle Sam is coming after your “water heaters, furnaces, clothes washers, dishwashers, ceiling fans, microwave ovens and shower heads” as well. (Ceiling fans? Huh?)

MAGA politics has also woven fossil-fueled rhetoric into much of its routine culture-war and hate messaging. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee Chair and notorious gasbag Jim Jordan tweeted, “First, they came for your guns. Then, your gas stoves. Then, your gas cars. What’s next?” It was a tasteless attempt to parody the poem First They Came, in which theologian Martin Niemöller lamented society’s early indifference toward Nazi genocide. Jordan augmented his tweet’s hate value by choosing to spit it out on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Gas pains

In ‘In Real Time’ Part 1, we used this metaphor for the need to end excessive resource extraction: “It will be equivalent to making a U-turn in a tanker truck hurtling down the freeway at 80 miles per hour.” There is no sign yet that America is going to make that turn.

As the nation kicked off 2023 by arguing over home appliances, carbon continued to waft skyward at a dangerous rate. Greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022. This means we’d need an abrupt U-turn to decrease emissions an average 5.3 percent per year between now and 2030, the Biden administration’s goal via the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA). 

Emissions reductions that rapid would be wholly unprecedented (with the exception of the pandemic year 2020), and the IRA contains no surefire mechanism for achieving such cuts. With the House of Representatives now under MAGA control, the chances that Congress will pass any laws in the next two years to quickly and directly slash emissions have slid from very poor to zero. 

GOP leaders insist nevertheless that they have plans to deal with climate in the 118th Congress. The energy and environment site E&E News reported in January, “In the coming months, Republicans intend to vote on a series of bills taking aim at existing federal regulations the GOP believes is stifling domestic clean energy production and innovation.” Sounds good, until it becomes clear that “clean energy” in this context translates as “fossil gas.” 

The core of the GOP’s “Let America Build” strategy for “clean energy” is to expedite permits for extracting, distributing, and exporting gas, while taking a wrecking ball to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (which is, in E&E’s words, “a bedrock environmental protection law sacrosanct to many Democrats”). 

“Let America Build” claims to “make it easier to produce energy and innovate in America,” and that, it says, should apply “just as equally to oil and gas as it does to renewables and other innovative technologies.” The fossil fuel industry and its representatives in Congress say they just want a level playing field—oh, and a little more imperialism as well. E&E reports, “House Republicans are also emphatic that the United States should focus on forcing other countries to use clean energy”—remember, that’s fossil gas—“and reduce their emissions rather than cutting off [US] domestic production.” Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia elaborated, telling E&E, “What we need to do is be addressing these Third World countries and developing countries and what they’re doing.” 

Such policy positions grow out of the tight bonds between MAGA politicians and the world of fossil fuels. Among the top GOP campaign donors are companies such as Koch Industries and Energy Transfer Inc. (of Dakota Access Pipeline infamy), according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The broader MAGA universe draws similar nourishment from oil and gas wells. IPS found that the Koch Charitable Foundation, for instance, supports a fund called Donors Trust that donates generously to climate denial, misinformation, and hate groups.  

Target proxy pollution

With Congress in a straitjacket on climate, the Biden administration reportedly aims to do as much as possible through executive action and sheer persuasion. A Supreme Court ruling last summer complicated things, however, by restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to directly limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Nevertheless, as the Washington Post reports, the Court’s decision made clear that the EPA 

still has the power under parts of the Clean Air Act to limit conventional pollutants from operations directly on-site at these plants. And environmental groups have pushed the agency to use a wave of updates under long-established rules that would reduce that pollution, but also likely lower greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product, in addition to creating a new rule that targets power-plant greenhouse-gas emissions directly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan signaled last year he planned to do just that.

So the administration plans to make use of environmental protection laws that were not written for the purpose of mitigating climate change but could achieve at least some greenhouse gas reduction as a side effect. For example, in January, the EPA proposed to strengthen rules for reducing soot emissions, which endanger public health. Such a move would probably have beneficial effects on climate as well. A Democratic lobbyist told the Post, “All these things are about carbon emissions. But [the EPA] will never say it’s about carbon emissions. This is the smart approach. The Supreme Court may not like it, but there’s nothing they’ll be able to do about it.” 

Such strategies may allow for end runs around the Supreme Court, but if the GOP takes the White House and/or both houses of Congress in next year’s elections, many executive actions will be reversed, and many IRA climate provisions will be attacked. That’s no reason not to take the actions, though. No one knows what 2024 will bring. And going after local pollution, whether or not it’s used as a proxy for climate damage, can advance environmental justice in marginalized communities. That brings us back to the administration’s push to phase out gas stoves. 

The stove campaign is aimed at improving indoor air quality and health, but if successful, it will also reduce emissions of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas that is the chief component of fossil gas. Rebates to low- and middle-income households for replacing gas appliances with electric ones, including stoves, are a welcome feature of the IRA; however, many low-income families, including those that rent their homes, are unlikely to benefit. More broadly, ensuring environmental justice and protecting human health while keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere cannot be accomplished one household at a time. That requires action at the community and state levels as well.

Liz Karosick, XRDC

For more than a year, Extinction Rebellion DC (XRDC) has run a campaign to thwart the plans of fossil gas provider Washington Gas to completely replace the city’s old, decrepit gas-piping infrastructure, at a cost of $5 billion. Instead, XRDC says, spending should go toward subsidizing the replacement of gas appliances with electric ones in the district’s many low-income homes, and ditching gas. Today—and far into the future, if the piping system is replaced—the city’s residents, 46 percent of them Black, are exposed to toxic methane and nitrogen dioxide fumes, with serious health consequences, especially for children. At the same time, the entire leaky Washington Gas system releases world-warming methane into the atmosphere.

XRDC activist Liz Karosick told me last year that some people had questioned the group’s choice of issues, asking questions like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But building momentum behind local demands, Karosick believes, could “change the trajectory, electrify the city. . . . We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.” Then, she said, “we can go back to expanding upon broader demands.”  

The political landscape: still steep and rocky 

In its plans for emissions cuts, the Biden administration is primarily targeting the electric power sector, aiming to eliminate coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2035. That would be an impressive feat, but it cannot be achieved solely through executive action. And it wouldn’t address our energy system as a whole. Only 25 percent of US greenhouse gases are emitted by the power sector, and phasing out the remaining emissions from transportation, manufacturing, cargo hauling, farming, road and building construction, and other sources will be much, much harder.

Only Congress can effectively address fossil fuels throughout the economy, and passage of laws for doing so won’t be possible until 2025 at the earliest. But even if the GOP takes an electoral drubbing in 2024, passage of the kind of sweeping, ambitious legislation required to effect a rapid phaseout of oil, gas, and coal (see Larry Edwards’ and my Cap and Adapt policy framework) would face fierce resistance from powers that be in government and business. 

A year ago, academics, journalists, and political figures were raising alarms over the possibility that in the 2022 and 2024 elections, MAGA forces could either win or cheat their way into full control over both houses of Congress, plus the White House, and not let go. On climate and broader ecological emergencies, I feared (among myriad other horrors) that autocratic extremists would then be in a position to block and bury federal climate policy for at least the next decade or more, ensuring that world-altering emissions would continue being pumped into the atmosphere. 

Last fall’s elections made that outcome somewhat less likely but far from impossible. Now we are seeing how fanatics who have only the most tenuous control over a single chamber of the legislative branch can nonetheless hamstring an entire government—as long as they don’t care about lawmaking or governing, only about bringing down those who do. The apogee of this fanaticism will occur in a few months when the MAGA mob leverages the lifting of the debt ceiling to advance its interests and further increase its power.   

Whatever it is that closes off our paths toward phasing out fossil fuels—a collapse triggered by the debt-ceiling extortion, stepped-up sabotage of government functioning, or some fresh catastrophe—the arena for climate action will probably be shifting even further into the hands of grassroots groups and communities like those that have been featured in City Lights Books’ “In Real Time” series over the past year: Extinction Rebellion, Start:Empowerment, the Great Plains Action Society (and the broader campaign against fossil carbon pipelines), the Poor People’s Campaign, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and others.

In pursuing on-the-ground action, though, we must not ignore the threat that antidemocratic, power-hungry public officials in Washington and state capitals pose to our collective future.  On that, I’ll turn to journalist Annika Brockschmidt for the last word:

So while the urge to laugh is understandable when Ted Cruz proposes doomsday scenarios—“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox” [in response to greater energy efficiency in gaming devices]—let’s not lose sight of what this latest outrage is meant to facilitate: to turn any cultural change, however small, into a story of victimization. This is the powerful driving force behind the Right’s grievances, and it provides them with permission to “hit back” as a form of “defense.” . . . By framing change or progress as an existential threat, the Right creates a siege mentality which is essential to the victimization narrative—no easy thing to do if your movement is experiencing a good deal of success (see the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, despite the sizable disadvantage in popular support). It also galvanizes the anger of the base, which serves as a powerful motivator, and strengthens their own sense of having an imaginary target on their backs. All in all it’s fine to laugh about the Right’s unhinged crusade against gas stoves. Just don’t miss the strategy behind it—and the fact that sometimes a gas stove is not just a gas stove.