V Interesting

Light, Sweet Crude with Amy Westervelt, My Billionaire Bestie, Race Against Climate Change

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Justice Clarence Thomas has been living the high life and not telling a soul… except all the people who dimed on him for a new ProPublica report. V breaks down what exactly this top judge did — and didn’t do — wrong in his role as a public servant. V also talks about the lengths that researchers have to go to for people to care about the environment. Fortunately, V is then joined by investigative journalist Amy Westervelt for the ultimate climate conversation. Amy outlines the real cost of fossil fuels, plus how oil companies still manage to appear “eco-friendly” while they actively exacerbate the climate crisis. She and V then talk solutions, including the idea of bestowing rights to the earth itself.

To learn more about the climate crisis, check out Amy’s latest podcast and follow her at @amywestervelt on Twitter and Instagram.

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V Spehar, Amy Westervelt

V Spehar  00:00

Hey friends, it’s Friday, April 14th, 2023. Welcome to V INTERESTING, where we break down the viral and very interesting news you might have missed. I’m V Spehar, and today, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was jetted around the globe by a billionaire conservative mega donor. Was it legal? And what does it mean for the state of the Supreme Court, plus, the win for wives and all kinds of lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the local city council passed new ordinances to protect all family types. Then I’m joined by award winning reporter Amy Westervelt she and I get real about what needs to be done to help the planet in a way that anyone can understand. All that and more on today’s V interesting from Lemonada Media. Let’s be smart together. Late last week, ProPublica published a damning report about Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice has reportedly been accepting lavish travel gifts and vacations for decades, he has been living a life of luxury and rubbing shoulders with highly influential figures in and around politics. And he did not really report any of that stuff. According to records, interviews and photos. Justice Thomas has spent years partying on a Republican mega donors dime, nearly the entire time that he sat on the court. Thomas has accepted things like private flights and yachting trips from the billionaire Harlan Crow. The two are reportedly quote, dear friends. But on these various vacations they’ve taken together, they’ve routinely been joined by other friends of crows. And those friends have frequently been powerful political figures with agendas of their own. And that my friends is what we call an ethical dilemma. It tells us a lot about what Thomas thinks is okay behavior. And it also tells us a lot about what rules are in place to keep this kind of thing from happening. The short answer is, there’s not many, there’s not many rules to stop this Supreme Court justices aren’t actually required to disclose these kinds of things. If a justice personally receives free food, lodging, or entertainment, that’s totally fine. No matter how much it’s worth. When it comes to tangible gifts. Technically, anything over $415 needs to be reported. But if you were to get multiple gifts under $167 each, there’s no need to add those together apparently, we suddenly don’t care about that $415 threshold. This is the wild west of finances, my friends. Compare that to how other members of the government have to operate. ProPublica points out that folks in Congress generally can’t accept anything worth 50 bucks or more. And if they were even thinking about saying yes to a trip on a yacht, they’d have to get pre-approval from an ethics committee. Other government workers don’t dare even open fruit baskets from vendors. Because most departments are straight up just not allowed to accept gifts. The public is only now learning that the Supreme Court operates in a very different way. Justice Thomas may have broken some rules, particularly with use of the private planes, but he might not be in violation of very much. The rules are pretty sparse to begin with, we essentially just expect that Supreme Court justices know how to behave. Some judges do use great judgment about this kind of thing. One former federal judge told ProPublica that she rarely identified herself as a judge in public even when making dinner reservations, she was that serious about not abusing her rank to get special treatment. Plus, we know when you get special treatment, you think more favorably of the person who gave it to you. And she didn’t want that kind of stuff to cloud her judgment. Even if Thomas wasn’t doing anything nefarious on these trips, though, that is still very much up in the air. You can’t tell me that these kinds of trips wouldn’t have some kind of influence on him. I mean, he’s got to feel at least a little warmer towards Crow for the hundreds of 1000s of dollars’ worth of travel and vacations he’s enjoyed over the last 20 years. Plus, as the saying goes, a friend of Crow’s is a friend of mine. So the result of all these cruises and conversations is likely that Thomas has been influenced not just by Harlem Crow, but by the rest of the crowd on these Saturdays for the boys boat outings, like Mark Paoletta. Yes, Mark Paoletta, who provided legal counsel and representation to Ginni Thomas regarding her interactions with the United States House Select Committee on the January 6, the tech. He was also on the team that helped place Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court during Trump’s administration. And yes, this is the same mark by the way, who testified before Congress to oppose was higher codes of ethics for the Supreme Court? I guess he just likes things the way they are. And of course he does. It’s a regular old boys club with one huge exception. This one involves a life tenured government official.

V Spehar  05:19

Something folks are supposed to disclose and they don’t. And other times folks are supposed to keep things a secret and they don’t. Buried in the headlines of it last week was a report that highly classified Pentagon documents were leaked online. At first, we thought maybe Russia or somebody was lying about the leak to try and get the US to admit to some espionage and like military strategy information that they claimed they had found, kind of like how my mother used to pretend that she knew something happened at school, only to have me absolutely spill my guts about whatever little secret drama I was having. Unfortunately, though, no, this was not a maternal trick. The leak is, at least in part for real. US officials have already confirmed some of the documents included are legit and boy howdy are they trouble for the Pentagon. information included exposes the extent of us eavesdropping on key allies, including South Korea, Israel and Ukraine. There was also information about how US military intelligence had infiltrated Russia’s military and mercenary groups, and how they were tracking their movements and plans and then handing that Intel over to Ukraine. But also, there was a lot of info from Ukraine about Ukraine’s military strategy, field positions and plans that was included in the leak that has put a big ol black eye on the trust between the US and Ukraine. The Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has a long history of cleaning up messes, has been tapped to lead the diplomatic response to this leak. And we don’t have time to get into it all here, but Google Wendy Sherman, she is a fascinating woman. So how screwed are we and maybe some of our friends and allies? Well, there is good news and there’s bad news. The good news is Russia said most of what they saw on the leak was all stuff that they had already kind of like knew about or it was outdated information about the war and military strategy. The president of South Korea is scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House later this month where no doubt they’ll be talking about any potential impropriety or spying that may have been happening. Also, the Pentagon immediately tightened up on who gets access to this kind of information, and has started a multi-agency investigation into how the data was accessed. If there was a leaker they are going to find them. Now, the bad news is Representative Jim Himes, who is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said that he’s worried that the closest of US allies, the so called Five Eyes intelligence partnership, a group that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, might think twice about sharing their most sensitive intelligence because of this leak. Meanwhile, news about the US spying is coming at a very bad time for an American journalist from the Wall Street Journal, Evan gross COVID. He was on assignment in Russia and is now being detained there on allegations of espionage. Just a few days ago, he was formally charged as a spy, and he has been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department. Now, that allows us to start the process of hostage negotiation and hopefully get him back home. But certainly this whole broader spy situation isn’t helping his case. On a lighter note, love is love. At least in Somerville, Massachusetts it is. Somerville just gave legal protections to nontraditional family structures, which includes polyamorous relationships, and it is the first city in the United States to do so. Now, how did they actually do it? Well, the Somerville City Council has officially classified family or relationship structure as a protected class. So when it comes to legal protections, this puts how many people you love on the same level as who you love. And that means it’s now illegal to discriminate against someone for being in a polyamorous relationship, for example, for this change, we have the humble city council to think this group has been at work on this for years starting in 2020. The council first proposed including polyamorous people in domestic partnership rights, like having hospital visitation, and it passed and now they’ve advanced the cause as support has gained traction locally and nationally. One of the people who helped draft these new ordinances pointed out how necessary these changes are. Laws have historically relied on one specific understanding of a family that is heterosexual cisgendered married parents living with a child or children that are genetically related to them and nobody else and get this friends. They reported that less than half of American kids live in a family that looks like that officials also note that polyamorous folks in Somerville may have spent the past few years not taking advantage of the rights they’ve been given.

V Spehar  10:07

The designation of a domestic partnership requires that people register a relationship with the city. And officials suspect that many people opted out because they were afraid of the stigma of polyamory might bring anti-discrimination ordinances aimed to protect these people now and for the future. The folks leaving these changes acknowledge that this is really just a start. These ordinances extend only to the Somerville population, which is about 80,000 residents, and they do not address child custody, which is a major concern for many modern families. But queer folks have been involved in this process from the beginning and queer folks don’t quit. So go smooch your partners and celebrate this win because once again, Massachusetts is ahead of the queer curve. Unfortunately, Massachusetts is also ahead of the curve on something much less uplifting. As you may have heard, Monday is the 10 year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. But an element of this year’s race that’s getting hardly any attention involves something else that happened in 2013, specifically, a report that was written about climate change, more specifically about how climate change may affect the marathon. Let’s set the scene for this 2013 report. Average Boston Marathon finish times have been steadily getting faster since the early 1900s. Runners found more effective ways to train and countries with more competitive runners have entered the race. We’re just getting better at marathons. But when researchers at Boston University looked at data from more recent Boston marathons, they noticed another trend that runners ran much slower on hot race days, winning times were about two minutes slower for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that the temperature increased. Like on race day in 2012, when it was way hotter than the year before. The winning men’s time was 9 minutes slower, 9 minutes. That’s an eternity in a race. And these researchers projected average race times would eventually start to get slower, not faster if global temperatures rise as they are expected to do. Now listen, the effect that a warming planet may or may not have on PRs really isn’t the point. It’s about how we might fail to notice environmental changes, if they’re not framed in the right way. Pointing to the tangible effects of climate change can make it easier for the average person to visualize. It’s freaky to think that it could be so hot so consistently, that we reverse our own trend of getting better at running. And it can be hard to picture that when day to day temperatures continue to fluctuate so much. I mean, it is New England. After all, we’re not really known for consistent weather. But temperatures are rising. November temperatures in Boston just hit an all-time high this past year. And it’s predicted that the city might break another temperature record this very weekend. And globally, the past eight years have been the hottest years ever recorded. This is not a drill guys, I’m super serious. And if it takes sports for someone to wake up to this, I mean, so be it as long as it happens. And we realize that this is the fight of our lives, and we haven’t lost yet. And in that fight to understand climate change, and it’s a real world effect. We’re gonna get a bunch of help from our guests today, because she is just about the most realistic and helpful person you can talk to about the current state of climate. Climate journalist Amy Westervelt is blessing us with her presence, her humor and her recommendations. So stick around, we’ll be right back.

V Spehar  13:48

We’ve heard the same things from the fossil fuel industry for decades now. Big Oil companies claimed that they’re helping to solve poverty, giving energy to people who need it most and generally making the world a better place to live. That’s all while the climate is changing rapidly. Luckily, there are investigative journalists like Amy Westervelt. She has a long history of reporting on fossil fuels. She hosts drilled a true crime style podcast about the creation of climate denial. The new season is called Light Sweet Crude. In this season, any picks apart the false promise that oil makes everything better. As Amy says, we’re up against a real climate deadline, not a fake political one. So it’s time to pay attention. Because while we’re clearly in the middle of a climate emergency, there’s still hope. So Amy, thank you so much for joining us today to help further understanding of the climate crisis. Do you remember the moment that you first got interested in this issue?

Amy Westervelt  14:44

That’s a good question. I mean, I was sort of loosely aware of it in my teens and 20s but I kind of happened upon it a little bit accidentally so I was freelancing for magazines and I was new to freelancing. And so I was like, had that moment of like, oh shit, my rent is due in two weeks, and I have no idea who I am. And a friend of mine was working at an engineering firm. And he was like, you know, we need someone to copyright like, case studies for us. It’s really, really boring, but it pays well, and they’ll pay you like, as soon as you finish when you get paid. And I was like, great, man. Yes, thank you. Amazing. So one of the case studies I had to write was for a project that they had done to reengineer offshore oil platforms for Shell. And this was like, an old study, it was like they’ve done it and you know, the early 90s or something, and I was like, I’m, I’m pretty sure that shell was like, not even acknowledging that climate change was happening then. And so I looked into it. And I was like, Yeah, sure enough, they weren’t. So I wrote a little piece for like, a really small environmental magazine, that’s no longer in existence. But that was like the thing that really got me into climate and particularly, like, I focus on the kind of corporate accountability side of things and sort of the fairness question, which is nice for me, because I get to sidestep all of like, the thorny scientific questions and just be like, you know, some people had some information, they used it to better themselves, and they kept it from everybody else. That’s like a very basic fairness question.

V Spehar  16:24

And you’ve been writing for so many different publications. Now, the New York Times The Atlantic Wall Street Journal, just everywhere, podcasts everywhere, every developer wants. Anyone that will have a I feel that was. And you are one of the early examples of accountability reporting on climate, how would you describe the situation we’re in right now?

Amy Westervelt  16:47

I don’t want to, I don’t want to like overly bum people out and be like, we’re fucked.

V Spehar  16:52

Bum them out, we can handle it. Let’s just give them the straight truth. Everybody, brace yourself, get your snap.

Amy Westervelt  16:57

I think that we’re going in the wrong direction, we’re moving very quickly in the exact opposite direction of where we should be going. And that is very disappointing, because, you know, in 2018, like, I’ve been covering reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for, you know, 20 years now. And like, they’re really boring, and they never get any news coverage. And in 2018, they had this huge report where the scientists actually said, in like, normal English, this is a real crisis, and people need to take it seriously. And we need to actually get on the path to changing and we have about 10 years to do it. And in the time, since that report came out, we had a pandemic, which slowed down everything and should have been, you know, could have been kind of an opportunity to be like, Oh, actually, maybe we can do things differently. But instead, we are increasing fossil fuel development worldwide, the global north countries like the US, the UK, most of Europe, have made lots and lots of promises, but not follow through on any of those promises. And, you know, the fossil fuel companies are doing what fossil fuel companies do, which is drill oil for money, like that’s, you know, I don’t, there’s no great mystery there. That’s what they will do. And they will do whatever they can to make as much money off of those reserves as they can while they can. And the only thing that will stop them is government intervention. It’s not even like a reduction in demand, because people are like, Oh, well, if we just stop using that, no, that’s not how they work. When demand goes down, they find ways to gin it up elsewhere. That’s why you’re seeing an expansion in plastic right now. It’s why you’re seeing so many petrochemicals right now, because actually a demand did go down. We had a decrease in demand for fossil fuels during the pandemic. And in general, people are trying to use fewer fossil fuels. There’s an electrification movement, in transportation and in homes and in buildings and all of that. And as that has happened, the industry has just said, well, where else can we sell this stuff? They have not said, Oh, we should drill less, and they won’t unless they’re required to. So that’s kind of where we’re at is, you know, same old, same old and governments not wanting to do anything about it. Except now, I mean, we also have the Russia Ukraine situation, which has been a huge lever for them to lock in gas for the next 20-30 years.

V Spehar  19:39

And I think it’s so interesting you say it’s not for lack of people trying to use less plastic trying to walk more drive less bike to work, I’ve done all the things right, like everything you can possibly do purchase the option to carbon offset your airline miles like every single thing you can do, but that isn’t the way that we achieve energy independence. It’s not the way that we’re going to achieve The cleaner planet? Where does that rhetoric come from? That makes the average person feel like it’s their fault.

Amy Westervelt  20:05

From the industry itself, it’s very handy for them to say, actually, if we’re just supplying and demand here, you know, if you guys didn’t want it so much, then we wouldn’t produce it. That’s just not true. Which is not to say that individual actions don’t matter, because I feel like these things get conflated. Sometimes it’s like, you know, look, will the industry stop producing as much oil and gas? If we all just say no to it? No, that’s not how they’ve ever operated, however, is individual action helpful in you know, yes, like living according to your principles is generally a good thing. But also, it does actually inspire other people to kind of move in this direction, too. And it can be the on ramp to different kinds of individual actions, like voting, like organizing, you know, things that are about more than just what you’re buying or what you’re doing. And all of that is, is good. But yeah, the fossil fuel industry has pushed that rhetoric for I mean, it up until really recently, you know, shell got chased off of Twitter for a day last year for being like, here’s our latest poll, like, what are you doing to curb climate change? And it’s like, what are you doing? So it’s come straight from them, and it works very well.

Amy Westervelt  20:06

Has this industry ever had more of a conscience? Or is this something that’s just since the inception of Big Oil, they’ve been kind of like, we’re just going to do whatever we can do to make money as long as we can. And we don’t have a conscience here.

V Spehar 21:39

I mean, they think they do have a conscience, it’s very interesting, you know, they think that they are bringing energy to people who need it and solving poverty in the meantime, you know, that’s the story that they tell is like, look, people need energy. And cheap energy, like fossil fuel energy is lifting people out of poverty. Now, that assumes that fossil fuel energy is cheap, because we’re not accounting for any of the many, many impacts that it has. And because it’s subsidized by most governments in the world, which makes it cheaper. But, you know, that’s kind of how they see themselves, they see themselves as, you know, powering the world, they actually have a huge victim complex, it’s really interesting. They’re really funny. They’re really like, you know, we do all this for you. And like, this is the things that we get, you know?

V Spehar  22:31

That’s the wild.

Amy Westervelt  22:32

really interesting, like you, you see it in a lot of the like, their communications with shareholders and things like that, they’ll sort of like complain about how it’s so unfair, that they’re being like, targeted by environmentalists. And, you know, people just don’t understand. That’s like, the big thing for them forever. It’s like, people just don’t understand how energy works. And if they did understand, they would like applaud us, which is like a real animating force for a lot of their marketing is like explaining to people how important energy is and how complicated it is. And actually, it’s really hard to do, and you guys should be grateful that we’re doing it for you.

V Spehar  23:11

That is one of the biggest red flags for me, honestly. And that is why at the start of the show, we say let’s be smart together. Because any time in any industry or person is trying to gaslight you into thinking that you’re just not smart enough to understand. And if you did, you would be smart enough to know that I’m the one who cares for you. I mean, that’s got like bad relationship written all over it that is like toxic all the way through to the ground. They’re drilling into, right? But they know that a crisis is coming. They know that their industry that they’ve been built on, and the things that they’re doing to extract these resources from the earth are no question about it. This isn’t rhetoric. This isn’t a scare tactic. This isn’t like a joke will end in crisis, it does end there isn’t an infinite supply. And it does cause problems. So how are they kind of like, managing that? Are they just saying like, well, we’ll just do it till we don’t? And then I don’t know, we’re gonna all like, just jump ship after that and live in the tar pits?

Amy Westervelt  24:13

It’s really wild, because they are I mean, I think for most people, you look at this and you go like, Well, why wouldn’t you just go big into renewable energy? Right? Like, if you see this coming, why wouldn’t you just invest in all of these other things.

V Spehar  24:28

They are offering them that right. Governments have offered like cold solar, they’ve they’re doing stuff to make that possible.

Amy Westervelt  24:36

Yes. And in a lot of cases, the oil companies were the early you know, researchers and innovators on renewable energy. Exxon was researching solar and lithium batteries and all that stuff like in the 60s and 70s. It’s not a new idea to them, but they are companies and they are run entirely around quarterly earnings reports. And so anytime there’s a dip in earnings, like, any of that stuff gets pulled back, and they refocus on sort of their core, they call their core business. So they talk a lot about, you know, even with carbon capture, which is like the thing they’ve probably invested in the most, because it enables them to not really change anything else. I mean, it’s we’re talking like less than 2% of their capital expenditure goes on anything that’s not fossil fuel related. So they are all in. So the way it works with oil drilling, right is like, they own all this land and all of these potential reserves. And for the most part, they kind of know what’s in these reserves, they know roughly how much oil they could get out of them. And the goal is to get as much of that oil out and sold before the world like says no more oil. So that’s really kind of what they’re doing now is this like, arms race of, you know, who can get the most oil out and get it sold, you know, before the jig is up. And then the next step really, for them, rather than like, okay, you know, solar or wind or whatever, really, they’re investing the most of his time and resources into petrochemicals. They’re looking at, you know, plastics, synthetic fabrics, like the boom in synthetic fabrics. I don’t feel like people connect this enough to the fossil fuel industry, but that they’re very much part of that whole push petrochemicals for agriculture to they’re in that business. They’re in the agrichemicals business, you know, and I think that they are just kind of counting on fossil fuels will be needed for, you know, into the foreseeable future, even with like, if all of the cars got, you know, electrified, for example, you would still need fossil fuels for heavy trucks, airplanes, all of that kind of stuff. So they’re kind of like, well, you know, and then they’ve locked in gas now, too. So it’s sort of like, okay, well, maybe oil is on the decline, but we can use it for chemicals. And then we’ve got these gas energy plays. And then like, after that it’s the next guy’s problem.

V Spehar  27:28

How much money are they putting into appearing green? Because honestly, like, as I sit here now, right, we’re in this conversation, I consider myself an educated person on the events of the day. And I’m like, Yeah, but I did just see the Exxon Mobil commercial, where they’re like saving butterflies. They are excellent at showing you like these nice little scientists, people who are working on special projects to save butterfly habitats. They are sponsoring all kinds of climate events, and like innovation challenges, and stuff that makes you think, like, well, it can’t be all bad. Like, how much are they spending to appear good. Instead of just investing in actually being good?

Amy Westervelt  28:07

I know, it’s hard to get at the at, like, the precise number. But if you look at the combination of advertising spend, and then sort of philanthropic spend related to securing what they call social license to operate, which is like, you know, the public saying, Well, yeah, they’re, they do all these bad things. But like, we get all of these benefits from them that make it worth it, you know. So things like, like in Guyana, which is where our current season of the podcast is focused, they sponsor the cricket team. So the uniforms are like Exxon on the front, and they like, they paid to get cricket put on TV, which is so smart, right? Because all the people are like, Oh, thank God for Exxon, like, now we can watch our cricket games on TV. It’s amazing. So all of that stuff. It’s I think that it’s on par with what they spend on all of their renewable energy stuff. So probably one to 2% of their capital expenditure goes on advertising and marketing, particularly with respect to environmental messaging. And you know, so like, if they stopped that they could double their investment in alternative energy overnight.

V Spehar  29:25

So we joke a lot about how like this politician is in big oil or mansions in coal or like all these different things and how the government is essentially run by coal and gas and oil because it cost so much money to run for office. What impact have you seen from the oil industry on the way that we as Americans are governed day to day?

Amy Westervelt  29:46

Oh, I mean, it can’t be overstated. I think almost every aspect of policy the industry touches and not just like yes, Energy policy, climate policy, for sure. Land use all of that stuff. leasing, permitting all of the things that impact whether or not an oil and gas project gets greenlit. So environmental laws, all of like the review processes that any project has to go through. And that impacts like, all kinds of other construction things, too, not just oil and gas. But you know, the way we think about, oh, well, what impact will this have on water and on soil and air and everything else? All of our environmental laws in general, I mean, they’ve been trying to get rid of the EPA since it began. So there’s that. But then there’s a whole bunch of other kinds of legal precedents that the industry has gone about setting up that I think are less obvious. So like, they pushed one of the early cases, that was like a precursor to Citizens United, which is the Supreme Court case that like expanded free speech rights to include political donations, right. So the precursor to that is a case called Bloody Mobil Oil was involved in getting that, you know, to the Supreme Court, and it basically opened up like the public square to corporate speech, because it challenged there was a state law in Massachusetts said that corporations could not spend money on advertising around ballot initiatives, or like political issues, and this bank wanted to, you know, advertise against some policy that was being proposed. And they took they sued about it, and it went all the way the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said yes, actually, you know, that was really like the first step on the corporations or people chain. And, and like, and then you see them through the years, like, up to and even after Citizens United, you’ll see like Exxon, filing a brief in a case that has nothing to do with them, saying, like, it’s very important for, you know, the courts to understand that corporations have all these like free speech rights. And now, in like all of the climate cases, there’s like 2530 cases right now in the US that are accusing the oil companies have fraud and trying to hold them accountable for liability and damages and all of that stuff. And then every single one of those cases, they are making a free speech argument. They’re saying everything that we have ever said about climate change was in service of trying to get particular policies either passed or blocked, which makes it political speech, which makes it protected speech is brilliant. And I mean, that has been like they started that in the late 60s and early 70s, like reshaping how we think about free speech and corporations, right. And they did it in the in like the legal sphere. And they did it in the media, too. They went after media that wouldn’t, you know, like mobile also, part of why they got involved in this was they wanted to do all these advertorials in the New York Times, they kind of invented that, and they wanted to do something similar on TV. And so they made all these ads. And then most of the broadcast TV channel said, no, we’re not running that. It’s propaganda. And they went ballistic, like they were like, code red, because like, they’re like, oh, my God, this is going to, you know, up, end our entire approach to how we kind of shape public opinion and influence the influencers and get politicians on our side and everything else. And so they went on this, like, full court press, you know, talking to all of the media, but also going to like the Chamber of Commerce and all these different, you know, kind of economic clubs and giving speeches and stuff and then getting involved in this court case. So it’s like, these really big structural things that the industry has shaped. So it’s like, yes, they get involved with particular policies, but like, they’ve kind of shaped the whole container to, right. And then on the research side, like they, they spend so much money, funding university research, and not just like Climate Research Center that’s like totally focused on carbon capture, or biofuels are these kind of preferred solutions, which skews how we think about potential solutions, but they also spend a lot of money on public policy schools and law schools and economics programs. They have, like, funded all of the economics research that says like, it’s too expensive to act on climate, you know, and all these studies that are like, look, it’s too expensive, we can’t do it. And then you look at it, and you’re like, This doesn’t model the cost of not acting. So how can we compare these two? You know, I don’t think people quite get like how much this industry has shaped like, everything about the situation that we’re operating in, roads, car dependency, all of that stuff to like, that wasn’t just the automotive guys. That was fossil fuels to and it’s happening even now with electrification, like there’s this big push on keeping transportation focused on car centric, like individuals Stick culture because, you know, like it’s going to take a while for EVs to totally replace combustion engines and they don’t want anything happening that will actually like, speed up that shift.

V Spehar  35:13

Do you think it’s generational at all? I mean, we you noted that this this policy change the sort of like going so hard started in the 60s and 70s, that sort of when the boomer generation was gaining power Boomer generation still in power right now, a lot of the folks who were doing that work in the 60s and 70s, are still holding the controls today. Do you think there’s any opportunity for generational change in mindset when it comes to the way these companies are led?

Amy Westervelt  35:38

That’s a good question. Because I don’t know. Like I, I, I feel like I would have been tempted to say, yes, maybe like a few years ago, but there’s, well, two things. One, I’m like, just because like one generation leaves doesn’t mean the next one doesn’t like there’s, you know, I mean, some of these fascists are pretty young.

V Spehar  36:03

That’s true. That is true.

Amy Westervelt  36:04

They’re out there, you know, it’s like, we’re not seeing any of these big structural problems actually, like die off with the generations that are sort of most associated with them. So, you know, but I know for a fact that the biggest threat to the fossil fuel companies in the last 10 years was the Youth Climate movement. And I knew that because someone leaked me documents from inside an oil company where they were like, holy shit, we don’t know what to do about this, because it was like an authentic movement. It was grassroots. They did not give a shit about, you know, whatever would thought, well, companies were trying to say like, Oh, you guys are young and dumb, and whatever. They were really good at, like clowning them. Yes, they didn’t know how to deal with at all you though, that actually gave me quite a bit of optimism for the future in general that like, Okay, we have like some young people coming up that are really, you know, unafraid to take on this industry and to, like, take it a little bit further than I think previous generations have been willing to do. But there’s a massive backlash happening to it to you know, the industry, like I was talking about corporate free speech before they’re doing on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of work to criminalize protest. And that’s not just in the US, but all over the world. So I think, in general, I guess maybe the biggest lesson for me in covering climate for a long time, in a lot of different ways is like, they will have to be forced to change, they will not just you can’t rely on like, oh, the world’s turning away from fossil fuels, or like, oh, the next generation is better, or Oh, like, nobody likes them anymore. Even like, I know a lot of people who are like, oh, you know, if we can just kind of pull their social license? Yes, that will help. But will it mean that they just roll over and go away? No, they will always fight and like, they will do whatever it takes really, like, there is nothing don’t know fight too small for them to get involved with I have seen them, you know, jump into like renewable projects at like, a tiny town in the Midwest, you know, like where you would think, oh, surely they don’t care if there’s a windmill somewhere in rural Ohio, they do care. And so I’m like to the other side has to be equally willing to do whatever it takes, you’re never going to go up against them. And last year, sort of ready to be equally committed.

V Spehar  38:50

So let’s chat about the recently approved Willow project. It’s the nation’s largest new oil project on Alaska’s north slope, and the National Petroleum Reserve, which is an area owned by the federal government. It’s also the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States. And people are arguing that this Willow project has the potential to be extremely lucrative, but also have extreme impacts on the environment and the peoples in the surrounding communities up there in Alaska. I wanted to kind of get your take on the willow project.

Amy Westervelt  39:22

Yeah, it’s, I mean, it’s disheartening. It’s one of those ones where I’m just like, oh, wrong direction. And I think it’s like the fact that Biden is like, I’m a climate president and then approved this project is really,

V Spehar  39:40

You can’t say I’m a climate president, and I’m a capitalist in the same sentence, Uncle Joe.

Amy Westervelt  39:45

They gave me this argument that well, you know, if we had denied the permit, then we would have ended up in court Fine, fine, good. I would have delayed it. You know what, like the fossil fuel industries approach on climate policy for the last five to 10 And yours has been delayed delay, delay. So use that against them to then fine, tie it up in court for the next two years, you know, and like I Yeah, the biggest problem I see with Willow is that it’s an it’s, you know, it will release a truly wild amount of co2 emissions at a time when we’re trying to decarbonize not add more emissions, the IPCC report that just came out, it was very clear, there can be no new fossil fuel projects, no new fossil fuel projects, not like, okay, just these ones that are already on, you know, like, no, no, no more. But also, there is no drilling or refining, or anything in that area. So you’re talking about building the infrastructure for lots of other projects to now potentially come online, which is a huge problem. So it’s not just Willow, which is big and bad, and not going to be great. But also, that opens up the pathway for, you know, four or five other projects. I just, I think there’s a way that politicians in particular, want climate to work, like other political issues, which is to say that, you know, if you get it wrong, and healthcare, or if you just don’t get it perfect on health care, you have lots of chances to get it right. You know, Will some people die in the process of you getting it? Right? Yes, they will, you know, but you do have the opportunity to like, come back to the drawing board again, and again, and again, again, you don’t actually have that with climate. And that’s where I feel like it’s really tricky to talk about politics and climate, because it doesn’t actually work the way that works, you know, it’s like, no, there actually isn’t a noticeable difference between like, so, so and bad, and like your geopolitical compromises really don’t matter to the global climate system, you know, so even when like, like you get, we get into conversations about this with global south countries developing fossil fuels to right, because there’s this idea of like, well, I mean, these are countries that are struggling financially, and if they are, like, if they can, they should be able to sell their oil, and especially if the global north is like not willing to shut down any of its operations and all of that, you know, which makes total sense. Unfortunately, the reality is, the global climate, the atmosphere doesn’t care where the shits coming from, like, it has the same impact no matter what. So the whole way that both national governments and sort of international bodies are set up to deal with this problem is like a little bit of a mismatch, which is unfortunate. I don’t know what to say about it. It’s really like, ooh.

V Spehar  42:57

I know, this is a bummer show, like I said, get your snacks and your tissues. And you explore this, this concept of oil colonialism that’s happening in the global south on the most recent season called Light Sweet Crude, which reveals the realities of this term. I had not heard oil colonialism. So can you tell us what oil colonialism looks like? Like, what does that mean? Because it sounds terrible.

Amy Westervelt  43:25

I think so this is another really interesting thing, I think, to think about it in the big picture is that like oil companies operate kind of above any particular government, right? They’re multinational corporations. They’re like, there’s a really great book called Private empire, by Steve Cole that I think does a really good job of showing this. He focused on Exxon in that book, but it is like a private empire. And it operates above the law in most places, because it has power over multiple governments, you know, like, they don’t just have this power in the US like they exert this power over the government of any country that they’re operating in. So like, that’s an incredible power, you know. And since the 50s, about US oil companies in particular, and European companies to have, you know, they needed more reserves. So they started going around the world and finding more oil and gas, and then, you know, laying claims to those in various ways. And when once they get in there, then they start shaping things the way that they’ve shaped them here, not just for their own business, but for how that country operates. So there was a big wave of it kind of 50s through 70s. You get all the Latin American developments happening. The Middle East, you know, at one point, there was this thing called the was like the red line map, where all of the global oil companies literally drew a red line around the Saudi Peninsula, the Arab Peninsula, and we’re like divvying it up like pizza slices and like cuz that’s kind of their approach to the world is like, okay, who gets wet, who’s gonna get wet? So now right now, because of this whole, like, oh God, we’ve got to get as much of the oil out and sold and monetized as quickly as we can. There’s less real like race on. So you’re seeing a major explosion of oil and gas in the Caribbean and Latin America and then also in Africa in a really big way.

V Spehar  45:29

And they continue to promise people because I see it in my comments. And yes, I do read all the comments, where they’re like, you […] oil is going to bring us jobs, it’s going to bring us wealth, it’s going to bring us work, it’s going to bring us energy independence, oil is going to solve all of our problems, it is the second coming, it is the greatest thing ever, and you just don’t get it because you live in New York. And that’s not something that you have to worry about where you are. But this is something that we want. I saw it with Willow project where there were certain indigenous tribes that were saying, this is affecting our ability to hunt and fish, our lands and all of this. And we’re devastated that Deb Holland had the Secretary of the Interior had endorsed the willow project and Biden administration’s decision to allow it to go forward. And there were other nations that were saying, we actually need this because this is going to help financially support us as a nation. So how do you deal with that kind of like, is it a false promise that oil is going to help people? Or is there some benefits as these folks?

Amy Westervelt  46:28

Yeah, I think that like, the thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot is that basically, these people, both in other countries and in the US, have been put in the position of being reliant on oil companies for economic development. And for actually, in the case of Guyana, and a lot of global south countries, they’re literally using oil money to pay for climate adaptation, which is wild, but why are they in that position? Because they haven’t gotten, you know, A, colonialism stole all of their wealth the first time around, and B, all of these countries that have been saying, Oh, we’re gonna chip into a global loss and damages fund, or we’re gonna pay for climate transition all of this stuff, none of it has actually happened. So now, they’re like, well, we would have taken, you know, we would have gladly, like, if you want to pay us to, you know, preserve forests, or if you want to invest in the renewable transition in these countries, because that’s another thing. You know, people will say, Oh, well, you should go for solar, because it’s cheaper. Yes, theoretically, that’s true. But you have to like build out a new grid, you have to build new connections, you have to deal with storage, and all of that kind of stuff. And doing that is really expensive. And it also requires a level of scale and technical feasibility that doesn’t exist in a lot of countries. So, you know, it’s kind of like, okay, well, if you want that, then you have to, like put your money where your mouth is.

V Spehar  48:06

Desperate situation, it’s hard to choose.

Amy Westervelt  48:09

So you kind of so in some ways, like, yes, it will solve those problems in the short term. However, in the long term, like A, those jobs don’t stick around, they don’t pay that much anymore. And the industry has very quietly been shutting a lot of jobs in favor of automation over the last 10 years. So they’re not the like, you know, amazing employer that they once were. And you have a huge potential for those projects to ruin a bunch of other economic opportunities, like, Have you been to an oil town, they’re not great. Like, they’re not like tourist destinations. They also, like in most of these places, this is something that I’ve been looking at a lot is like, does this problem is actually pan out? Does it solve the energy access problem? Does it solve poverty? Does it actually bring money to the public? And over and over again, especially since 1980, the answer is no. Nigeria is the global south country that’s been in oil for the longest, right? And they are now right now today last in the world on energy access. So like, if oil and gas development was going to solve the energy poverty problem anywhere in the world, it would have solved it in Nigeria by now. And we don’t have to go that far. We can look at Louisiana. You know. Are people doing great in the state of Louisiana? No. Are their electricity bills low? No, they’re higher. They’re 10% On average, higher than the rest of the country. And that is like a major oil and gas state how people in Texas fair in the last freeze, not great, you know, so it’s like, look, but I think the climate movement has something to learn here too. Like if you want people to say no to fossil fuels, you need to be offering something else.

V Spehar  49:54

Well, that brings me to my next question, which is like, is the wind the thing? We have like only so much land, right? And now Uncle Joe Biden is like wanting to put all these like wind turbines in the ocean and like off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and whatnot. And he’s like on July. His pieces of the Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling and for wind farms and all this business like, is wind a good option like, is putting wind turbines out in the sea like a long term feasible option? Can you just like, give me a rundown on wind?

Amy Westervelt  50:31

Offshore wind is a great option. Okay, a lot of the offshore wind work can be done by offshore oil workers, it’s very, very similar. So actually, like Louisiana, is like, where all of the offshore wind workers are getting trained, because a lot of the folks that were working in offshore oil have kind of all the skills they need with like just a few new things to do offshore wind. So that’s great, too. It’s like kind of a one to one job swap. And it generates a lot of power. And they have really figured out for the most part, a lot of the storage and distribution issues. The biggest problem with renewables right now, is the permitting issue and trying to get transmission, like through large swaths of land that don’t currently have things and there is there’s this big kind of like, I don’t know, there’s this really messy conversation happening right now around like, you know, well, renewables aren’t perfect, right. They’re not like without impact. They require mining, they require land for transmission and all of that stuff. They have an impact on nature and wildlife. But I think that I’m seeing climate people like not do a great job of dealing with us questions, because I think that the knee jerk reaction is like, no, none of that’s true. And it’s all fine. But like, it’s like, no, no, we can have that conversation. Like, it’s actually really good to have that conversation right now and think about, okay, how do we minimize the impact on nature? How do we minimize the mining? How do we electrify in a way, that’s not just like a direct replica of like the overconsumption that we have now, so that we actually have fewer environmental problems, instead of like swapping every car with an electric SUV? You know, like, that’s that ain’t it folks, like, like, we actually really need to have those conversations right now. Because we’re at this really pivotal point where we are making policy that will dictate how electrification happens. And, you know, everyone was like, Oh, the IRA, it’s so much spending on electrification. Great, but if there’s no policymaking that goes with it, then that’s a problem.

V Spehar  52:44

It’s just spending money to spend money. You know, I live up here in Rochester, New York. And during the pandemic, they turned the water mills back on like the old mills to mill flour. Like, we were all out of flour. We were doing renewable stuff before it feels like should they just turn on those old like paddleboard wind? I’m like, at what point? Do you just like harness the Niagara Falls? Again? I know, they are doing work with that up there, of course.

Amy Westervelt  53:13

Yeah, I mean, that’s another really good example of like, you know, a lot of environmentalists are very anti-hydro, because they don’t like dams. Right. But like, are there ways that we can do hydro that is less of an impact on the environment similar with nuclear, a lot of environmentalists are very anti-nuclear if becomes a very, like heated issue very quickly. But like, I don’t know, I’m kind of like, I guess this is my version of the like, all of the above energy strategy, I kind of feel like, all of the above, except fossil fuels should kind of be on the table at this point. Because we are up against a deadline. And it’s a real deadline. It’s not like a made up political supply. And like, every bit helps, like that’s, that’s the thing to keep in mind, too, is like, look, every 10th of a percent actually really, really matters, to, you know, how people will be living 3040 years from now, and you know, who will survive and how they will survive and how they’ll live? So, like, there is no like, okay, well, we didn’t do it time to give up. You know, like, that’s not a thing.

V Spehar  54:23

I know, you had said, you know, so often when we’re thinking about like, how we’re gonna fix the climate crisis, we think of these like huge things. But there’s little things like how to be in community with your neighbors, how to share things, how to, like reuse stuff. And then there’s this other thing called the rights of nature concept. What’s that?

Amy Westervelt  54:40

I’m obsessed with this because like, I feel like, even you know, with the renewable stuff, it’s like, Okay, that’s great. But for the most part, like, I think a large majority of people who care about climate and want to do something like are they sort of just want to plug their shit into something else, you know, like, they don’t really want to change anything else, right? And I’m kind of like, oh, would be great if it was that easy, but I don’t think it actually is, you know, I think I’m pretty sure we’re gonna end up with like some other big problem if we just approach it that way. Right. So nature is a legal concept that gives ecosystems rights, and therefore actually empowers the community around those ecosystems to protect those rights. So for example, if you rely on a local lake for your water source, you don’t have rights to that as like, you know, a citizen right now, you can’t really do anything about it, if like a company decides that, like, if the local town is like, okay, we’re gonna give this company a permit to dump chemicals in that lake, like, you kind of don’t have a say, but if we had a rights of nature framework or a law in place, then you would be able to sue the government and the company to stop that from happening. I love that. I love it, because it puts. And the thing I love the most about it is that it just like, it puts different values at the center of like, the legal and political framework. So right now the core value at the center of US law. And policy is like private property rights, basically. That’s like, if you really boil it down, it’s that like, it’s like, one person’s right to make money off of resources. This was says, we all depend on the ecosystem. And therefore we are all obligated to protect the ecosystem, which means that like, no one entity can actually like have so much power that they can, on their own, destroy that ecosystem that we all rely on. And it’s like an a totally like different framework and different perspective that like, forces a different type of decision making. So for example, like in Ecuador, they have rights of nature in their constitution. And the Supreme Court, they’re just heard their first constitutional case about it and ruled on it. And it was a mining company that was mining in a cloud forest, and they were mining for minerals required for electrification, you know, and so the president was like, this is a green initiative. It’s like mining for electrification, and net zero and all this stuff. And the court was like, no, because like, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing it for, you still have to think about what the impact is on the watershed, and the air and the soil and biodiversity and like this ecosystem that we all depend on, which I’m like, oh, if we had that kind of a decision making framework, then we wouldn’t be in this place of like, oh, I’m just going to plug my computer into a solar panel, and that’ll be fine. Right? You know, because we’d have to be like, Oh, is it? Is it actually, you know, it works that way. In both ways. I’m sure there are instances I’m not thinking of where, like, what seems like the environmentally preferable option is maybe like, not so much.

V Spehar  57:53

I mean, you know, birds could get hit by the wind turbines.

Amy Westervelt  57:59

Yes, that’s a big one.

V Spehar  58:01

I love that one. Birds aren’t real. First of all, the birds aren’t real. They’re, they were all replaced by Ronald Reagan, and they’re all spies. Birds aren’t real conspiracy. And then you have the birds are gonna get caught in the wind turbines. And what if a bald eagle gets caught in the wind turbine? That would be terribly anti-patriotic. It really. Amy, what are you looking forward to next? What are you working on?

Amy Westervelt  58:25

I am working on actually the next podcast season is going to be about this whole free speech journey that the fossil fuel industry went on. So sort of like the history of that and then up until what they’re doing today, where they’re kind of trying to expand corporate free speech and, and restrict individual free speech. So yeah, and they can find it anywhere they listen to podcasts.

V Spehar  58:50

Awesome. Amy, is there anywhere else people can find you social medias?

Amy Westervelt  58:53

Oh, I’m on Twitter at @AmyWestervelt. And I write pretty regularly for The Guardian. And they intersect too. So you can find me there too.

CREDITS  59:02

It was such a pleasure chatting with you. Thanks for bumming me out. And then also bringing us back up. I knew that we would in the end. Thanks so much. Thank you. No worries, we’re gonna link to all of Amy’s incredible work so you can continue to be smart about the state of climate. Amy is a great shepherd on this journey. And I’m so grateful for everything she’s taught us today. Be sure to tune in to next week’s episode where we dig into the headlines you may have missed please leave us a five star rating wherever you are listening. It really does help folks find the show. Follow me at @underthedesknews on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. And guess what friends? There’s even more V INTERESTING with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like Dr. Pooja Lakshman talking about her time working in one of the world’s only orgasm labs. You don’t want to miss that one. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.

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