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The most important climate legislation that Congress may consider in the months ahead says nothing at all about carbon emissions or solar panels. Instead, H.R. 1, known as the For the People Act, is all about mail-in ballots and early voting and automatic registration—about making sure that every citizen gets to take part in our democracy. It passed the House on March 3rd. If it passes the Senate, there may be a chance, in the next decade, to build the consistent majorities necessary to tackle the hardest problem we’ve ever faced (as the advocacy group RepresentUs makes clear in a handy little video); if it doesn’t, minority rule will continue and, because the oil industry underwrites that minority, change will be halting at best.
The law is needed because Republicans have made voter suppression an essential part of their strategy. They have no choice: the country has moved against their ideas to the extent that the Democrats have carried the popular vote in seven of the past eight Presidential elections. But that’s not been enough to give the Democrats real governing power: though Republican senators represent less than forty-five per cent of the nation, the G.O.P. has ruled Congress for most of that period, without even the need to exercise the filibuster. The current Senate alignment—which allowed the passage of the landmark COVID-relief bill—hangs on the voters who sent two Georgia Democrats to the Senate in January. The laws that allowed for high turnout in those elections are being rewritten in Georgia, and the Peach State is not alone: in statehouses across the country, similar laws are passing. There’s no real mystery what’s going on: as one Georgia Republican official explained, such restrictions are necessary so that her party has “at least a shot at winning.” Or, as the Arizona Republican legislator John Kavanagh put it, last week, “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.” Two guesses whose votes count as quality.
Democracy is important for its own sake; I hope that I would be for people getting to vote even if they were going to vote for raising the sea level by twenty feet. But that’s not what will happen: allowing Black and brown people their rightful voice will help raise the prospects of climate legislation, because they care about it more than anyone else in the country. And it’s going to take a decade of consistent legislative action to accomplish the “fundamental transformation” of our energy systems that scientists have told us is required. Two steps forward and one step back won’t work—we need about twenty steps forward, and they need to be running steps.
In general, America’s democratic system has been set up not just to disempower minorities but to check rapid change; it’s fundamentally conservative. A certain kind of conservatism is fine—human institutions tend to work best when they change gradually. But sometimes gradualism is impossible, and with climate change, in particular, there’s far more danger in acting too slowly than too fast; that’s because of physics, pure and simple. A working majority of Americans has come to realize that; polling shows that two-thirds favor more climate action. But the G.O.P. strategy of voter suppression keeps that working majority from exercising its influence, and instead keeps the Party’s donor class, heavily weighted toward the fossil-fuel industry, firmly in control. This interregnum, during which Kamala Harris wields the gavel in the Senate, may be the only window we get in the relevant time period to rewrite the rules, so that we have a chance not just at fairness but at actually responding to the climate crisis. Right now, if you care about the climate future, it’s as important to fight disenfranchisement as it is to battle pipelines; same-day voter registration counts for as much as solar power.
Passing the Mic
Kathleen Dean Moore is one of the most penetrating essayists at work on the relationship between humans and the natural world; collections such as “Holdfast” explore her fascination with the tidal flats of her Oregon home, among other natural wonders. But, as the climate crisis has deepened, her work has shifted in an activist direction. With Tom Kerns, she’s the co-editor of the soon-to-be-released volume “Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change,” which draws from testimony at a weeklong 2018 session of the Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
Describe this tribunal—where it came from, how it worked, and what use its conclusions are being put to.
In 2018, a small committee of climate advocates petitioned an international human-rights court, the Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, to rule on whether fracking and climate change directly violate human rights encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The petitioners marshalled eyewitness testimony, moral and legal arguments, and amicus briefs and presented their evidence in what was the first weeklong international human-rights tribunal to be held over Zoom.
The tribunal ruled that fracking and climate change systematically violate substantive and procedural human rights, that governments are widely and deeply complicit, and that fracking should be banned. Although the decision does not have compulsory binding force, it weakens the social license of extreme-extraction industries by linking environmental destruction and human-rights violations. Rights-based climate cases are currently pending in Brazil, Norway, the European Court of Human Rights, and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, among many others. The opinion of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal provides a context for their arguments and suggests some directions they may take. It also provides a model for local people’s tribunals. The Youth Climate Courts initiative is one promising example of how committed people can hold their governments to account.
So far, the Biden Administration has paused new fracking leases on land owned by the federal government. What do you think next steps should be?
The Biden Administration has merely ordered a sixty-day pause on selling new oil and gas leases on federal land. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies can continue fracking on existing leases and develop the new leases that they stockpiled in a frenzy at the end of Donald Trump’s Administration. Because existing oil and gas drilling on federal land is responsible for twenty-five per cent of this nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, the Biden Administration can do much more. Here are four feasible next steps:
You’ve described the natural world in your corner of the country with great beauty and power. What has it been like to weather summers of fire and smoke? Oregon went through a kind of hell this past summer—combined with the pandemic, what mood did it leave you in?
These forest fires burned so hot, fast, and fierce that nothing could stop them. Families fled through dense smoke, saving what farm animals they could. At one point, ten per cent of the state’s population was under some sort of evacuation order.
We hunkered down behind wet blankets hung over the windows, but for weeks there was no escaping the thick brown smoke. Day and night, we breathed through Covid-19 masks. Driven by wind gusting up to eighty miles per hour, ashes piled in windrows under the doors. None of us had experienced a disaster on this scale since Mount St. Helens blew itself to cinders, in 1980.
How do I feel? I feel that I’ve swallowed a hot stone of fear. There is no satisfaction in saying “I told you so.” All through that strangely hot summer, neighbors talked about the dangerously sick-sweet smell of parched pines. We knew. And that’s the worst. We saw the fires were coming, and we knew it was too late to stop them.
A large and sobering study indicates that the Amazon has likely turned from a net sink for greenhouse gases into a net source: in particular, cattle ranching and dam-building are producing lots of methane. “Cutting the forest is interfering with its carbon uptake; that’s a problem,” the lead author, Kristofer Covey, a professor of environmental studies at New York’s Skidmore College, told National Geographic, which sponsored much of the research. “But when you start to look at these other factors alongside CO2, it gets really hard to see how the net effect isn’t that the Amazon as a whole is really warming global climate.” Meanwhile, great reporting from Mongabay shows that the scourge of palm-oil production is rapidly spreading to the Amazon from Malaysia and Indonesia.