Newsletter: On climate change, listen to the rage-filled youth before savvy commentators

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, right, marches during a "Fridays for Future" demonstration.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, right, marches during a “Fridays for Future” demonstration on a street in Davos, Switzerland, in 2020.
(AFP via Getty Images)
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Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

An unpleasant part of being an opinion journalist is sometimes weighing what’s politically possible and what’s actually needed to fix a problem. It’s what makes us savvy — or somewhat cynical, the kind of people who use “earnest” pejoratively. The point I want to make has to do with climate change, but perhaps a more familiar example is needed first.

Take the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The 2010 law expanded healthcare access to millions of Americans and prevented untold more from financial ruin, but it also preserved a profit-driven system that still leaves about 30 million Americans uninsured. Obamacare remains the Democratic Party’s crowning political achievement of the 21st century, but it failed to fix the problem that healthcare reform advocates set out to solve: establishing universal access to medical care.


You know what would fix the problem? A public insurance option available to all Americans (not just the poor and the elderly), or even nationalized healthcare. Those options poll well among voters, but they’re nonstarters in our political system. Or at least that’s how the professional, savvy commentariat frames it.

So it goes with climate change. There’s the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s signature progressive feat and the U.S. government’s biggest move against global warming yet. It is an indisputable political achievement, authorizing nearly $400 billion in federal green energy spending over 10 years. We’re much better off for it.

But our atmosphere follows the laws of physics, not politics, and what truly matters is the global emissions of greenhouse gasses. On that measure, humanity’s happy talk on fighting climate change doesn’t match its record — even in the United States, and even in the year we landed the strongest political blow against climate change. In 2022, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3%, an uptick we cannot afford when we need drastic reductions now just to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

Sad as this reality is, it’s refreshing to hear righteously angry voices that defer not in the slightest to political realities that are ultimately meaningless. One of those voices belongs, of course, to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who represents the rage of a generation inheriting an unlivable planet.

On The Times’ op-ed page this week, we adapted an essay from her newly published “The Climate Book.” I urge anyone inclined to heed the “adults in the room” to read her piece, or at least this excerpt:

“So they did not just get it slightly wrong — our leaders completely failed. And they continue to fail; despite all the beautiful words and pledges, they are not moving in the right direction. In fact, we are still expanding fossil fuel infrastructure all over the world. In many cases, we are even speeding up the process. China is planning to build 43 new coal power plants on top of the 1,000 plants already in operation. In the U.S., approvals for companies to drill for oil and fossil methane gas are on schedule to reach their highest level since the presidency of George W. Bush.


“Oil production is soaring all over the globe: new oil fields are being opened, pipelines are being built, new oil licenses are being auctioned and the search for even more production sites is ongoing. Even the use of coal is expanding — the global amount of coal-fired electricity reached an all-time high in 2021. The overall forecast for 2022 tells of further increasing emissions of CO2.

“We are two years — one fifth of the way — into what is called ‘the decisive decade.’ For even a small chance of staying in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, our emissions must be in an unprecedented decline. But instead, in 2021, we saw the second-biggest emissions rise ever recorded. And it keeps increasing. A United Nations report from September 2021 states that they are expected to rise by 16% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. Add to this the fact that at 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming we are already seeing feedbacks that are not fully accounted for in the scientific pathways. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, global wildfires in 2021 created the equivalent of 6,450 megatons of CO2. That is 148% higher than — way more than double — the total fossil fuel emissions of the entire European Union in 2020.”

It’s starting to feel like 2004 again. Then, Republicans put gay marriage on the ballot in 11 states in a cynical ploy to turn out their voters and help reelect President George W. Bush. Today, they’re passing anti-transgender laws focused on children in numerous states to keep MAGA voters highly engaged (with an assist from mainstream news organizations that scandalize gender-affirming medical care). Maybe this anti-trans hysteria will pass as the efforts against gay marriage did, but in the meantime it has real and permanent consequences for trans children, writes columnist Robin Abcarian. L.A. Times

Her Black ancestors were erased from her family’s memory. But she found them. Columnist Jean Guerrero writes of discovering her Black ancestry by looking at family photos with her 86-year-old grandmother, a Puerto Rican who had always insisted her family was white. When Guerrero saw a photo of her grandmother’s mother and remarked that she was Black, her grandmother replied, “Her skin was as white and as beautiful as mine.” Records confirmed that Guerrero’s great-grandmother was indeed Afro Puerto Rican, but she says centuries of European and then American colonialism made their way into her family’s mind and coerced them into hiding their non-white ancestry. L.A. Times

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s retirement marks the end of an era for California. Writes The Times’ editorial board: “She has been dogged in the last few years by questions about her age, mental acuity and whether she’s still up for the job — but she has delivered for California, including securing billions of federal dollars for projects from subway construction to wildfire restoration. With Feinstein’s exit, California will lose the seniority and ranking her tenure carries; Sen. Alex Padilla was appointed in 2021 and won his first U.S. Senate election in November. The state is better for Feinstein’s service, but she is right to pass the torch to the next generation of California leaders.” L.A. Times

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A California surfer says he’s observed years of coastal erosion from climate change, but nothing like what happened in January. Tyler Fox, a big-wave surfer who lives in Santa Cruz County, recalls the storm that hit last month: “In my 30 years as a fanatic oceangoer, I’ve never seen anything like what I saw on Jan. 5 of this year. They called the storm a bomb cyclone, and the thing was a bomb. The swell measured as much as 30 feet and produced surges so powerful that they washed over roadways, flooded beach homes and caused sections of our iconic coastal roads to collapse. The power from these waves broke piers as if they had been twigs and flung at least one massive wooden piling into a nearby restaurant. A friend had basketball-size rocks tossed through the front windshield of his parked car from an exploding wave.” New York Times

If you think the earthquake damage you see in Turkey can’t happen here, think again. Legendary Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones has a warning for California: “A … potentially catastrophic flaw in our building code is not being addressed. When it comes to earthquake safety, the current international code is intended solely to keep a building from killing someone while keeping the cost of construction as low as possible. The code essentially says this: You can choose to build a structure that is so weak that it will be a total financial loss after an earthquake, as long as it doesn’t kill someone. Engineers need a more concrete definition for ‘not killing someone,’ and that has become ‘avoid collapse.’” L.A. Times

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