Climate Crisis: Oil Below Zero, Planet of the Humans, Earth Day At 50

By: Steve Horn | April 25, 2020

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story and a week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In recent weeks, this column has focused heavily on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and that will continue as the pandemic sweeps through the world. But climate change and the politics of tackling the issue are still happening outside of the context of COVID-19, and we will use this space to tell those stories, too.

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read last week’s edition here.


Oil Below Zero

The global price of oil has reached below zero on the global market. Yes, below zero. This is due to the combination of the earlier oil price war waged between Saudi Arabia and Russia, as well as the impacts of enormously reduced global consumption of oil in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

It is also directly related to the way the oil trading market is structured, which is based on both short and long-term bets made by speculators. Few could have guessed that a global pandemic would be on the horizon. But here we are.

Hundreds of oil companies now face the prospect of bankruptcy restructuring or worse, liquidation and total shutter. For thousands of workers, this will likely mean unemployment, joining the already 26 million workers who have filed for unemployment since COVID-19 workplace restrictions began in March in the United States.

As previously covered here in the roundup, the situation has created a divide in the U.S. between Big Oil and Little Oil on the prospect of a federal bailout. ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips have opposed it, but the smaller companies responsible for pioneering the fracking revolution over the past 15 years have lobbied the Trump Administration for a financial package.

Perhaps as a favor to his 2016 presidential campaign energy adviser and close ally, Harold Hamm—founder, former CEO and Board Chairman of one of the top drillers in North Dakota and Oklahoma, Continental Resources—Trump tweeted on April 21 in support of making bailout money available.

Unsurprisingly, the climate movement reacted with horror:

“The oil and gas industry spent millions to elect Trump in 2016, and they’re getting exactly what they paid for,” Greenpeace USA Senior Climate Campaigner Jack Shapiro stated in a press release in response to the news calling for no bailout money to go to oil companies. “But Trump’s energy policy has never had anything to do with American workers — it’s a cover to allow his industry friends to continue profiting off the backs of vulnerable communities and future generations.”

Instead, Shapiro called for federal dollars to finance “a massive, Green New Deal-style investment in low-carbon infrastructure to create the jobs of the future while rising to the challenge of climate change.”

But as we covered in last week’s roundup, the notion of a green stimulus has been completely taken off the table by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

“Planet of the Humans”

The new documentary film Planet of the Humans, a harsh critique of the modern U.S. environmental and climate movement, has landed for free on YouTube. Executive-produced by Michael Moore, the progressive documentary director of films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and Capitalism: A Love Story. The film was directed by Moore’s longtime producer and collaborator, Jeff Gibbs.

Planet of the Humans  can be thought of as both an expansion and a recap of Ozzie Zehner’s 2012 book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. I interviewed Zehner, a producer of the film, for the media outlet TruthOut in 2013. In our  conversation in which he slammed liberal climate groups for their “productivist” ethos. He said then that “the environmental movement has relegated itself to cheerleading and mindless chants” supportive of production of alternative energy sources.

That quote is the film in a nutshell, a scathing look at the supply chains of often-touted energy sources like solar, wind, biomass, and popular techtopian solutions such as electric vehicles. Instead of green capitalism, the film posits that we have too many people—particularly wealthy people in the western world—who consume too many resources. And green energy, Gibbs argues in the film, acts as a religious-like salvation totem for the vast majority in the movement, a distraction from the root of the problem. It’s not just naivete driving this ideology, Gibbs argues, but financial backing from billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Jeremy Grantham, David Blood, and Richard Branson.

As of April 24, the film has received over 1.5 million views on YouTube. Though Moore is a progressive icon, the film has received criticism from Josh Fox, director of the documentary film Gasland, 350.org founder, Bill McKibben and others for say are factual errors and edging close to eco-fascism in calling for population control.

McKibben, one of the most prominent climate activists in the United States, comes under particularly harsh scrutiny in the film for previously supporting wood-based biomass energy and uncritically supporting the “productivist” viewpoint on non-fossil fuel energy.

Responding, McKibben wrote on 350.org’s website that his views have changed on biomass energy over the years as he has learned more and he now opposes it. He also says he  reached out to Gibbs’ team when he heard he was a major focus of the film in response to the critique, but that he never heard back.

“That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith,” wrote McKibben, who had previously written a book in 2007 that actually agreed with many of the points raised about endless economic growth in “Planet of the Humans” titled Deep Economy, which predated the foundation and growth of 350.org.

Fox, for his part, has published an open letter calling for the film’s retraction altogether:

“The film is dangerous, misleading and destructive to decades of progress on environmental policy, science and engineering,” reads the letter. “We are demanding an apology and an immediate retraction by the films’ producers, director, and advocates.”

San Diego Transit Snag

San Diego County, the fifth largest in the country, was on the march to unveil a sweeping new mass transit plan later this year called the “Five Big Moves.” Add then COVID-19 happened.

Heavily reliant on funding from sales tax revenue and transit ridership, both of which are drastically reduced due to the county-wide stay-at-home order, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the agency overseeing the “Five Big Moves,” says they will soon face a major budget shortfall. The transit plan is expected to cost at least $100 billion.

It is not clear what the future will bring for the “Five Big Moves” proposal, but it certainly looks much different than it did when we last reported on it in June of last year.

In related news, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System recently decided against pushing for a ballot initiative vote for the 2020 election cycle that would raise the sales tax by half a cent in order to boost revenue. Chairman of the MTS Board, Nathan Fletcher, said that now, with the city and county struggling to pay for the current transit services it provides, is not the time to ask taxpayers for money.

The news comes as San Diego has seen measurable clean air benefits, and thus likely, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, from having fewer cars on the roads during the COVID-19 outbreak. In San Diego, over 70% of overall greenhouse emissions are generated from mobile sources.

Earth Day at 50

Finally, Earth Day turned 50 on April 22.

Here at The Real News, we spoke to Tia Nelson, who is the daughter of the founder of Earth Day, former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator, Gaylord Nelson. She discussed how her father viewed environmentalism not as a matter of land conservationism for wealthy white people, but as an intersectional issue impacting all environments, and particularly in areas populated by people of color.

Though it is now a sanitized, corporate-friendly event, Nelson’s words exemplify the radical roots of Earth Day. Some 20 million people hit the streets on the first Earth Day.  The movement’s founders called for measures such as a halt to ecological overshoot and unbridled economic growth.

The environmental movement itself, though, has since become far less radical. Much of this has to do with reliance on either corporate funding streams or foundation funding, as critiqued in Mark Dowie’s 1996 book Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, and in the 1996 book Washington Babylon by Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn. Washington Babylon argues that these dynamics have caused the Democratic Party to shift rightward on environmental issues.

And on the right, one year after the first Earth Day, soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, wrote the road map to the retaliation against Earth Day. Known now simply as the Powell Memo and written when he was an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the memorandum titled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” served as a call to arms to the U.S. business community to mobilize in the fight against the environmental movement and other progressive issues. Put into action by think-tanks, legal groups, and other moneyed interests, the Powell Memo has also pushed the Republican Party further to the right.

These two trends have also helped to shift the Overton Window of policy and discourse on all issues, including those impacting the environment and climate, in a much more conservative direction. It is this terrain on which those seeking to fight the climate crisis are now playing today, as Earth Day turns 50.

Related Bios

Steve Horn

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020. Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice…