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Automakers Start to Figure Out the Climate Future

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If you want to meet an expert who understands where the world is heading, may I introduce a bushy-bearded Australian coal miner who features anonymously in a video that was shared by the Sydney Morning Herald last week. He is sitting behind the wheel of a borrowed Tesla when a man in the back seat urges him to “just plant it. Hard as you can.” The man punches the accelerator, is immediately pushed back in his seat, and breaks into a grinning cackle. “Fucking got some go, eh?” the man says. “It’s just instant. Like, fuck,” the driver replies, beaming. (Watch it; you’ll feel happier afterward).

Many of the changes needed to get us on the right climate path are going to meet with resistance, but it’s beginning to look as if getting people to accept electric vehicles may not be one of them. Elon Musk has done pioneering work, but the Tesla has mainly been a niche product—the niche being early adopters of cool things who live along the coasts. (Life in Muskworld is getting a little silly: last month, he started touting a model with ten rocket thrusters that will go from zero to sixty in 1.1 seconds, which sounds like a very bad idea.) Things got very real, though, with last month’s announcement of an electric version of the Ford F-150 pickup, America’s best-selling vehicle every year since the Reagan Administration, and the most popular motor vehicle of all time. Within seven days, the company had reported seventy thousand preorders—and the stock had jumped eight per cent.

Having spent most of my life in rural America, where the F-150 is ubiquitous, I can tell you why this is going to succeed. It’s not the acceleration; it’s the plugs. The electric version will basically be a battery on wheels. The “power frunk” (where the engine used to be) has several outlets, useful for all the power tools you might need if you’re not near another electrical source—if you’re building a home, say—and replacing the noisy, smelly, dangerous gas generators that no one likes. You say that most pickup drivers are not, in fact, home builders? It’s true—most Americans have no need of a pickup at all. But watch any truck commercial and see who it stars. Once blue-collar America endorses the electric approach, suburbia will follow. We need far more than electric cars, of course: buses and bikes, not to mention paths for those bikes, are crucial. But since, right now, public transit accounts for about one per cent of passenger miles travelled, the new pickup paradigm seems critical.

And, in any event, the car companies seem all in. Last week, Ford announced that it was putting down thirty billion dollars in new spending on E.V.s; General Motors has already said that it will be nothing but electric by 2035. By contrast, the banking sector seems determined to have it both ways, trying to make money off both fossil fuels and a renewable future. Late last month, President Biden issued an executive order on climate financial risk that begins by noting that “the failure of financial institutions to appropriately and adequately account for and measure these physical and transition risks threatens the competitiveness of U.S. companies and markets, the life savings and pensions of U.S. workers and families, and the ability of U.S. financial institutions to serve communities.” That failure was visible on many fronts in recent days. Deutsche Bank put forward a detailed plan to cut its carbon emissions by, say, reducing “fuel consumption for its company car fleet in Germany (roughly 5,400 cars) by 30 percent by 2025.”

That sounds fine, but, as the campaigners at the German environmental and human-rights organization Urgewald have pointed out, such proposals “are also an embarrassing testament to the fact that the bank’s understanding of sustainability is stuck in the 90s. The measures are easy to integrate and don’t harm anyone. However, they won’t have a significant impact either”—not, say, like the bank’s plan to coördinate the initial public offering for the oil-and-gas group Wintershall, which plans to boost its fossil-fuel output by thirty per cent by 2023. Closer to home, the world’s biggest fossil-fuel financier, JPMorgan Chase, has announced plans to cut not the amount of carbon that its loans liberate from the ground but, rather, the “carbon intensity” of its portfolio. This would permit it to keep making loans to companies that want to continue producing the same amount of oil and also allow it to vastly increase the amount of natural gas that they pump; gas is somewhat less carbon-intensive than oil, so this increase would slide right through this loophole. At a House Committee on Financial Services hearing last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did her best to cut through this blatant greenwashing, and Jamie Dimon, the Chase C.E.O., seemed to say that the bank was working to cut absolute emissions in its portfolio as well—but for the moment the plans are secret. If you’re wondering how much this matters: a new report shows that the carbon produced by the loans from British bankers alone would make them, if they were a country, the ninth-biggest emitter on earth.

It’s good news of a sort that so much is suddenly up in the air: the fallout from the various court rulings and shareholder votes of late May is less a blueprint for the future than a simple acknowledgment that something must change. Sticks are being stuck in hornets’ nests, and there’s some shrieking from the industry and its friends. (Check out the fifteen G.O.P. state treasurers threatening to withdraw state funds from banks that don’t lend to the oil industry.) But, at least for the moment, the delighted laughter of a miner behind the wheel of an E.V. drowns out the noise.

Passing the Mic

Ana Teresa Fernández, an artist born in Mexico and now based in San Francisco, specializes in what she calls “social sculpture.” I was struck by her recent project “On the Horizon”: clear tubes, erected on the beach and filled with saltwater, which attempt to show passersby what the six feet of sea-level rise that scientists are projecting would actually look like. But all her work is mesmerizing, and I was grateful that she agreed to answer a few questions. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Explain these remarkable tubes that you’ve installed on the beach. Where did the thought come from, and what has the reaction been like?

In 2017, I was invited to speak at the Art + Environment Conference at the Nevada Museum of Art, where I first came across this piece of information: “The sea levels will rise 6 feet in the next 50 years.” This news first pounded on my gut, then kept reverberating within me. I know we hear numbers, but we often don’t feel what that means. This is where I had an idea to try and suspend six feet of water in an attempt to create a visceral experience. First of all, how does one suspend that much water? Secondly, how do you make it rise from the shoreline? And how do you create it in a way that lures people to want to know more? This is how “On the Horizon” was born. Once I had the first design of the ten-inch-wide and six-foot-tall Plexi tube made, I partnered with Doniece Sandoval, the founder of LavaMae, to raise the funds to create an interactive experience by fabricating sixteen of these tubes. “On the Horizon” would be mobile and brought to different shores and endangered coastlines.

While honing in on the design, we tested just one tube on different beaches. Each time, people were immediately drawn to it. When we tested it at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, a group of five little girls swirled, danced, and played around it for an hour, showering us with questions. When we explained this was how high our future coastline would be, their mouths gaped wide. When their parents approached us, the girls were the ones responding to their inquiries about the piece. This is when we knew this piece was intergenerational.

Read More: Automakers Start to Figure Out the Climate Future

2021-06-02 18:18:23

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