What Facebook and the Oil Industry Have in Common
Why is it so hard to get Facebook to do anything about the hate and deception that fill its pages, even when it’s clear that they are helping to destroy democracy? And why, of all things, did the company recently decide to exempt a climate-denial post from its fact-checking process? The answer is clear: Facebook’s core business is to get as many people as possible to spend as many hours as possible on its site, so that it can sell those people’s attention to advertisers. (A Facebook spokesperson said the company’s policy stipulates that “clear opinion content is not subject to fact-checking on Facebook.”) This notion of core business explains a lot—including why it’s so hard to make rapid gains in the fight against climate change.
For decades, people have asked me why the oil companies don’t just become solar companies. They don’t for the same reason that Facebook doesn’t behave decently: an oil company’s core business is digging stuff up and burning it, just as Facebook’s is to keep people glued to their screens. Digging and burning is all that oil companies know how to do—and why the industry has spent the past thirty years building a disinformation machine to stall action on climate change. It’s why—with the evidence of climate destruction growing by the day—the best that any of them can offer are vague pronouncements about getting to “net zero by 2050”—which is another way of saying, “We’re not going to change much of anything anytime soon.” (The American giants, like ExxonMobil, won’t even do that.)
Total, the French oil company, has made the 2050 pledge, but it is projected to increase fossil-fuel production by twelve percent between 2018 and 2030. These are precisely the years when we must cut emissions in half, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to have any chance of meeting the vital targets set by the Paris climate agreement, which aim to hold the planet’s temperature increase as close as possible to one and a half degrees Celsius. The next six months will be crucial as nations prepare coronavirus recovery plans. Because effective climate planning at this moment will require keeping most oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground, the industry will resist fiercely.
So we need power brought to bear from companies whose core business is not directly challenged by climate activism. Consider the example of Facebook again: after organizing by people like Judd Legum and StopHateForProfit.org, companies including Unilever and Coca-Cola agreed to temporarily stop advertising on the social platform. Coke’s core business is selling you fizzy sugar water that can help make you diabetic—when that’s threatened, the company fights back. But when it feared being attacked for helping Facebook’s core business, it simply stopped advertising with the company, which wasn’t essential for Coke’s business.
That’s why it is critical to get third parties to pressure the oil industry. This past month, the growing fossil-fuel divestment campaign got a huge boost when the Vatican, whose core business is saving souls, called for divestment, and the Queen of England, whose core business is unclear but involves hats, divested millions from the industry. Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota, announced that he was suing ExxonMobil, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries, for perpetrating a fraud by spreading climate denial for decades. (Ellison’s core business is justice, and his office is pursuing this climate action at the same time that it is prosecuting the killers of George Floyd.) All this, in turn, puts pressure on the financial industry to stop handing over cash to oil companies. As I pointed out in a piece last summer, JPMorgan Chase may be the biggest fossil-fuel lender on earth, but that’s still only about seven per cent of its business—big, but not core.
Effective progress on climate will require government and the finance industry to enforce the edicts of chemistry and physics: massive action undertaken inside a decade, not gradual, gentle course correction. And that will require the rest of us to press those institutions. Because our core business is survival.
Passing the Mic
Anna Jane Joyner is a climate activist who concentrates on what she calls “crafting stories and strategies that inspire new audiences to take action on climate change.” She makes special effort to engage evangelical Christians, including her father, who is a prominent pastor. She was featured in the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” and is the co-host of the podcast “No Place Like Home” with Mary Anne Hitt, an activist from the Sierra Club.
You’re focussed on spirituality and the response to climate change this season on the podcast. What are you learning?
I’m learning to take the long view and just focus on the next right thing. When the Rabbi Jennie Rosenn talked with us, for next week’s episode, about the seder—a celebration of the exodus of Israelites from slavery and oppression—she emphasized that part of that story is that, first, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, not knowing what would happen, but with faith that God would protect them. Reverend Lennox Yearwood, of the Hip Hop Caucus, reminded us that for many vulnerable people, activism isn’t a choice, it’s simply fighting for their lives, families, and homes. For me, that means that even when we’re feeling despair, anxiety, and fear, we can’t give up—a lot of people don’t even have that option. He told us, “We can be overwhelmed but not overcome.” Dr. Kritee Kanko, a Buddhist teacher, shared how meditation helped her climb out of a deep depression, and reminded us of our “interbeing”—how deeply interconnected we are, as we’re all witnessing now because of covid-19.
As activists, both Mary Anne and I have increasingly turned to spirituality as a way to find our own resilience and courage, and we’ve heard the same from a lot of fellow climate friends. We wanted to dig deeper into that and share it with our listeners, and also take a look at the landscape of spiritual stories and traditions to find even more tools and guides that offer light during hard, dark times.
You come from an evangelical background in your youth. What’s made it seemingly uniquely hard for much of that world to grapple with this issue?
I am a preacher’s daughter, and my dad is a climate-denying megachurch pastor. To me, it seems most white evangelicals are lost in a false nostalgia and brainwashed by the cult of Trump and Fox News. They’re driven by an ideological identity and a mentality of my team vs. yours, not science, or even compassion, and stuck in the culture wars of the nineteen-eighties and nineties. I like to remind people that there’s a lot more to Christianity than what white evangelicals have to say. There’s still a lot of hope among young people who were raised in that space, and even those who still identify with it, who are far more likely to embrace science and social justice. And there are millions of progressive Christians who care about the climate crisis and are inspired by Jesus’ teachings and other tenets of Christianity to act. But I fear that many, if not most, older white evangelicals may be lost—not that I won’t still keep trying.
How do you find solace when you have to deal with this crisis all the time, and what do you do when you just get overwhelmed?
Buddhist teachings on non-attachment have been really helpful: the reminder that my job is not to know how to fix everything, it’s just to show up and do the next right thing. The Christian story of resurrection and life overcoming death is inspiring me right now. Often, when I’m really overwhelmed, I just stop what I’m doing and walk outside and listen and watch, to feel the universe itself giving me solace. When I was nineteen, I was on a sailing trip and we got caught in a terrible storm. It’s the closest to death I’ve come. And I was in a state of panic—finding it hard to breathe, etc.—and out of nowhere, for the first time in years, I prayed: “God if you can’t calm the storm outside, please calm the storm within me.” I’ve prayed that prayer a lot the past few years. When I really can’t get out of a funk, I pick up someone else’s story: a podcast, novel, memoir, show, or movie. I almost always find comfort, creativity, and courage in focussing on something beyond my own story for a minute. Then, I get back to work. There’s a lot of solace in action, too.
This newsletter has covered the problem of abandoned oil wells before, but new numbers in a report from Reuters are truly striking. “More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day.”
It turns out that public transit probably wasn’t a major spreader of the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Atlantic. Get out of your car, but wear your mask.
The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which was formed by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and young people from the Sunrise Movement occupied her office, in 2018, released its recommendations yesterday—it’s a highly detailed, five-hundred-and-thirty-eight-page document that could help form a blueprint for congressional action in the years ahead. The first reaction from Julian Brave NoiseCat, at Data for Progress: not half bad. In The New Republic, Kate Aronoff points out that although the plan’s designed to take on global warming, it’s not very global.
California sent a strong signal to the trucking industry, announcing that it would phase out sales of diesel trucks in favor of ones with electric motors. The move will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually clean the air in communities that are unfortunate enough to be situated near shipping hubs.
California, New York, and now Massachusetts are planning for a future without natural gas. The Bay State’s crusading attorney general, Maura Healey, has asked for an investigation into natural gas, noting that Massachusetts likely can’t meet its global-warming targets if it keeps burning propane. Space heating and water heating together are the second-biggest source of emissions in the state, and two-thirds of that comes from burning natural gas, so the switch to electric heat pumps running off renewables is a logical step.
Last week, authorities in Baton Rouge charged two local anti-pollution activists with the crime of “terrorizing” after they carried out a peaceful publicity stunt. Protesting plans for a huge new plastics plant in a community already suffering from high levels of pollution, the activists left a box of plastic pellets, known as “nurdles,” from a similar factory in Texas at the home of an oil-and-gas lobbyist. The attached note listed, among other things, the name and phone number of the activists’ attorney, which is not something that actual terrorists, or even criminals, normally do.
Last week, leaders in Colorado Springs decided to shut down two coal-fired power plants and invest in renewables instead. Along with the Air Force Academy, the city is home to so many religious organizations that it has been called the “evangelical Vatican.” It has also seen large-scale wildfires in recent years.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, upset that some banks have decided not to lend for oil drilling in the Arctic, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, have tried to make a “racial justice” issue out of it. The members of Congress argue that some indigenous groups want oil exploration to proceed. Bernadette Demientieff, the leader of an advocacy group for the Gwich’in tribe, dismissed the politicians’ claim in an op-ed: “Why have they spent their careers ignoring the true cause and cost of the climate crisis, as Indigenous villages slip one by one into the ocean and hunters trying to feed their families fall through prematurely melting ice?”
The Supreme Court ruling protecting gay rights may have an important knock-on effect in protecting efforts to fight climate change. Justice Neil Gorsuch ruled that the definition of sexual discrimination in the Civil Rights Act included gay and transgender people, even if they were not among its initial group of protected people. That finding could be used, analysts said, to similarly claim that the Clean Air Act covers carbon dioxide, even though it was not considered a pollutant when the law was originally adopted.
Surely you know to listen on occasion to WWOZ, the great heritage-music station out of New Orleans. But on Saturday evenings—and anytime on the time-and-distance-obliterating Internet—the show “Soul Power” offers rare and deep cuts from the seventies and eighties, thanks to D.J. Soul Sister. Given this week’s discussion, cue up Stargard’s “What You Waitin’ For?”
This article originally appeared in The New Yorker on July 1, 2020