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As the world burns, D.C, fiddles on climate | Will Bunch Newsletter

The Pacific Northwest broils, and the Gulf of Mexico is aflame. Hey D.C., do something!!!

Firefighters battle the Bond fire, started by a structure fire that extended into nearby vegetation, along Silverado Canyon Road on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Silverado, California.
Firefighters battle the Bond fire, started by a structure fire that extended into nearby vegetation, along Silverado Canyon Road on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Silverado, California.Read moreKent Nishimura / MCT

Nazis! I hate those guys, especially when — in the white-masked modern guise of Texas-fried unpatriotic cowards called the Patriot Front — they march with their upside-down American flags right past Independence Hall, hours ahead of July 4. At least until they encountered a handful of real Philadelphians, when they bravely turned their tail and fled.

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The Pacific Northwest broils, and the Gulf of Mexico is aflame. Hey, D.C., do something!!!

At 85 years old, Dorothy Galliano — whom the New York Times described as “a vibrant fixture” in her neighborhood, the Seward Park section of Seattle — didn’t have air-conditioning. In the Pacific Northwest’s largest city, cooled most of the time by sea breezes and its frequent clouds, only 44% of homes do, the lowest of any metro area in the United States. In a few short hours last Tuesday, that conventional wisdom turned deadly.

Seattle firefighters found Galliano inside her overheated home after neighbors hadn’t seen her for a while. A window was open just a crack, and her TV set was on. She was one of at least 125 Americans, with the number still rising, whose deaths were attributed to a heat dome that settled over the Pacific Northwest and sent temperatures to levels once thought unimaginable, including a record 108 degrees in Seattle last Monday. In addition, authorities say hundreds more have died just across the border in Canada, where the scenic mountain town of Lytton burned to the ground.

But if Seattle’s sweltering residents turned their TVs to national news, they would have seen a lot more coverage of the sudden condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., where about 145 people have died or are missing in the rubble, than of the slow-motion tragedy in their opposite corner of the nation. As the crisis of a planet overheated by greenhouse-gas pollution intensifies every year, the media somehow struggle with telling this story — helping the general public to shrug about the dangers, and giving cover to elected officials who either want to deny the crisis or horse-trade as if this is just more politics-as-usual.

The sense that the world is on fire was only amplified with dramatic pictures from the Gulf of Mexico just off the coastline of our southern neighbor, where an undersea natural-gas pipeline exploded so that part of the sea was essentially ablaze. Surely now, with such powerful images, and with climate change contributing to so many weather-related deaths, America’s leaders would be compelled to take bold action, right?

In the reality-based world, the Senate moderates who negotiated a just-under $1 trillion infrastructure deal with President Biden — its final passage is anything but assured — made sure to strip out most of the administration’s original climate-related provisions. That included a national clean-electricity mandate that would have sped up the end of fossil-fuel-fired power plants, as well as tax incentives for wind and solar power and most of money proposed to spur more use of electric vehicles. Team Biden has assured angry progressives that the dollars will come in a second bill to be passed through budget reconciliation, which would just need the votes of all 50 Democrats (plus the tie breaker, Vice President Kamala Harris).

Well ... good luck with that. At the very same moment that crews out West were battling back the latest wildfires, the environmental group Greenpeace UK was releasing a video of ExxonMobil’s top federal lobbyist — tricked into thinking he was speaking with a friendly job recruiter on Zoom — spilling the beans on his firm’s strategy to thwart major climate action on Capitol Hill that might cut into its massive profits.

» READ MORE: You probably won’t read this column about the biggest problem in the world right now | Will Bunch

The most disturbing revelation from the lobbyist Keith McCoy was his close ties to a gaggle of key Senate moderates, including those who presumably stripped the climate provisions from the infrastructure bill — naming five key Democrats. In particular, the lobbyist for the world’s largest fossil-fuel corporation insisted that he speaks with the staff of the most powerful Democrat in Congress, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, every single week. Considering that Manchin — representing a state where coal is still venerated — was already a dubious supporter of major climate action, this is very bad news for Planet Earth.

But then, there are serious questions about whether Biden — even after an “A-minus” or maybe “B-plus” start on climate change, rejoining the Paris accords for global action and killing the Keystone XL pipeline for good — is fully rising to the seriousness of the moment. Despite his seeming commitment to phasing out carbon pollution, the Biden administration has flummoxed environmentalists in recent weeks by defending, at least for now, an oil pipeline that would cross Indigenous land and fragile wetlands in Minnesota, and a second controversial project in Alaska. Mixed signals and cautious incrementalism are a dangerous message from the White House at such a perilous time, with sharks like ExxonMobil lobbyists circling.

That’s why I can only stand up and applaud the dozens of young climate activists from the Sunrise Movement who were arrested after sitting down and blockading all 10 entrances to the Biden White House last week, demanding the restoration of climate monies to the infrastructure bill, as well as full funding for the president’s new Civilian Climate Corps that would enlist a small army of young Americans for environmental work.

Sure, I heard the carping from OK Boomer “Resistance” types (yes, my own generation ... sigh) that activists should be protesting the GOP denialists and not Biden with his good record, but the truth is Biden and the Democrats are the ones who will listen, and they can do more — a lot more. And they must. The only weapon these young people have to fight millions in Big Oil campaign contributions is putting their bodies on the line, and they are bravely doing that. Unlike their corrupt and contented elders, they are not fiddling away while Seattle, Lytton, and the Gulf of Mexico — and God only knows what next — burn.

Yo, do this

  1. If you spent some time on social media this weekend, you might have heard chatter that Summer of Soul — the film from Philly’s own Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, based on long-forgotten-but-priceless footage of a 1969 Harlem music festival — is not just the movie of the year but maybe the best concert documentary of all-time. Believe them! The performances from a remarkable and diverse array of artists — from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone to, yes, The Fifth Dimension, and many more — are the foundation of a much deeper story, of the moment the American “negro” became “Black.” You may shed a tear or two at the end, not so much for an era that was lost as for the beauty that has been recovered in this remarkable movie, in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

  2. While Summer of Soul is basking in much-deserved attention, I need to tell you about a second, sprawling music-nostalgia documentary that is also very, very good, and for inexplicable reasons has received next to no fanfare. Apple TV Plus’ eight-part series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (based on an also excellent book by Britain’s David Hepworth) does a magnificent job blending arguably music’s best year (think Tapestry, What’s Going On, Imagine, Who’s Next, Blue, Sticky Fingers, etc.) with relevant culture from Nixon to LGBTQ liberation to Attica to PBS’s An American Family. A moving scene that intersperses that latter show’s Pat Loud divorcing her husband with Carole King performing “It’s Too Late” should be taught in every film school.

Ask me anything

Question: Are Dems’ lack of progress on Voting Rights Acts going to cause [them] to lose seats in 2022, essentially losing those who may normally be fence sitters, but were last year solidly in the Dem camp due to Trump animosity? — Via Barry Rosen (@BAR0ke) on Twitter

Answer: That’s really two questions in one. It’s clear that 2022 is going to be a hard midterm election for Democrats — because of the historical trends, GOP success in whipping hysteria over “critical race theory,” etc. — and apathetic fence-sitting Biden 2020 voters won’t help in that regard. Meanwhile, the party’s failures (so far) on voting rights and the latest backward step from the Supreme Court also seem a bad omen, but this could backfire on Republicans. Last year’s success by Stacey Abrams and other activists in Georgia in overcoming a repressive environment is inspiring similar campaigns for 2022, including one in Pennsylvania. At the moment, countering GOP restrictions with a massive turnout drive may be the only play.

History lesson

Donald Rumsfeld died last week at age 88. I probably should just leave it right there — not speaking ill of the dead, and whatnot. But Rumsfeld, a former White House aide and two-time secretary of defense who — while serving under George W. Bush in the 2000s — became the chief proponent of invading Iraq over a 9/11 attack it had nothing to do with and weapons of mass destruction that it didn’t have, was a towering monument to the bland bureaucratic banality of evil. His belief in an America that projected power under a false flag of freedom and democracy killed hundreds of thousands of people ... and for what? Failing to acknowledge his massive sins in death only compounds our failure to bring accountability in life.

» READ MORE: George W. Bush started an immoral war. Now he’s getting the Liberty Medal because nothing matters | Will Bunch

But there’s something else: It’s hard not to think of Rumsfeld and last week’s mild, even-handed newspaper obituaries (one particularly embarrassing headline was the AP’s “a clever leader, undermined by the Iraq War”) and wonder if we’re already traveling down the same road by failing to bring Donald Trump to account for his criminal presidency, and beyond. On Capitol Hill, Trump’s GOP allies are doing their damnedest to thwart a serious inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection, arguably the worst act by any president in U.S. history. Even in the less lofty world of Trump’s financial crimes, I’m unconvinced that a) the Trump Organization’s now-indicted CFO Allen Weisselberg will flip on his boss or that b) prosecutors will ever get to The Donald. It all speaks to one of the massive holes in the American Experiment: Our inability to win real accountability for the rich and powerful. If we continue down the path of doing nothing, our grandchildren may only remember Trump as “a cunning president undermined by January 6.”

Inquirer reading list

  1. Only one Inquirer column this week due to the holiday, in which I tried to look at the alarming state of today’s Republican Party through the prism of its appalling performance here in the state of Pennsylvania. Specifically, the failure of GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg to spend as much as $7 billion in available dollars when so many are still reeling from the pandemic shows what conservatives really believe — that government shouldn’t help its citizens.

  2. About those white nationalists parading through the heart of Center City late on a Saturday night — unannounced, in the middle of a long holiday weekend ... Two Inquirer photojournalists — Jessica Griffin, joined later in the evening by Elizabeth Robertson — heard the initial reports of the Patriot Front march and sprung into action in a difficult situation, amid sporadic violence between the neo-fascists and angry Philadelphians who encountered them. Their courageous photographs literally riveted the nation — shared tens of thousands of times on social media — and shone a light on the growing threat of far-right extremism. A big-time city needs big-time journalism. Support their work — and The Inquirer’s — by subscribing today.