Climate Change’s New Ally: Big Finance

Madison Condon in Boston Review:

Over the past two years a striking change has taken place in the boardrooms of greenhouse-gas producers: a growing number of large companies have announced commitments to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050. These include the oil majors BP, Shell, and Total, the mining giant Rio Tinto, and the electricity supplier Southern Company. While such commitments are often described as “voluntary”—not mandated by government regulation—they were often adopted begrudgingly by executives and boards acquiescing to demands made by a coordinated group of their largest shareholders.

This group, Climate Action 100+, is an association of many of the world’s largest institutional investors. With over 450 members, it manages a staggering $40 trillion in assets—roughly 46 percent of global GDP. Founded in 2017, the coalition initially was made up mostly of pension funds and European asset managers, but its ranks have grown rapidly, and last winter both J.P. Morgan and BlackRock (the world’s largest asset manager) became signatories to the association’s pledge to pressure portfolio companies to reduce emissions and disclose financial risks related to climate change.

Some critics think corporate “net zero” goals smack of greenwashing. That is a legitimate concern, but many of the latest commitments contain details that suggest they are more than just PR moves. Shareholders have pressed for tying executive compensation directly to the achievement of emissions goals. And some companies have begun to write down billions of dollars of fossil assets they previously claimed would be profitably sold. Emissions targets are not the only change investors are fighting for, either; they have been paying increasing attention to corporations’ efforts to thwart carbon regulation.

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Remote working—an inflection point?

Christy Hoffman and Sharan Burrow in Social Europe:

In the years to come, we may look back at 2020 as an inflection point—a pivotal moment when large numbers of workers began to reorganise their lives away from a worksite, towards new models of working at or near home. The global pandemic forced a sudden, disruptive shift in work, supported by technology which quickly adapted to make continued activity possible on a larger scale than ever imagined. Many predict that we shall never go back to the workplaces of the past.

Such teleworking has been gradually increasing for several decades, typically associated with jobs that are easily measurable and highly autonomous, often involving high levels of independent judgement. It has been most prevalent in northern Europe and, in the United States, in areas with long commute times and highly-priced office space, where both the employer and employee are incentivised to adopt the model.

But the pandemic has proved that a much wider range of work can be effectively performed away from a worksite, including work which is less skilled and autonomous. In fact, during the lockdown an estimated 40 per cent of all workers in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were able to continue to work from home.

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The Language of Butterflies

Adrian Woolfson at The Washington Post:

For many, insects are an annoyance and at best an inconvenience. They deserve and even demand to be dispatched to an abrupt and untimely demise. In Victorian England, on the other hand, insects were so revered that documenting and cataloguing them became a popular and passionate pastime. The eccentric banker Charles Rothschild is said to have stopped a train to allow his servants to capture a rare species of butterfly that he had spotted from a window. His daughter Miriam Rothschild, in between determining the mechanism by which fleas jump and establishing a dragonfly reserve on her estate, became a leading authority on the monarch butterfly, which she described as “the most interesting insect in the world.”

In her glorious and exuberant celebration of these biological flying machines, “The Language of Butterflies,” Wendy Williams takes us on a humorous and beautifully crafted journey that explores both the nature of these curious and highly intelligent insects and the eccentric individuals who coveted them.

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The Sociologist Who Could Save Us From Coronavirus

Adam Tooze in Foreign Policy:

When COVID-19 struck, we wondered whether it might be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chernobyl. But after initial prevarication driven by Wuhan’s local politics, China’s national leadership reasserted its grip. The worst moment was Feb. 7, when hundreds of millions of Chinese took to the Internet to protest the treatment of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who had died of the disease. Since then Beijing has taken control, both of the disease and the media narrative. Far from being a perestroika moment, the noose of party discipline and censorship has tightened.

By the spring it was White House staffers who were likely watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and wondering about their own boss. Lately, the historian Harold James has asked whether the United States is living through its late-Soviet moment, with COVID-19 as President Donald Trump’s terminal crisis. But if that turns out to be the case, it will not be because of a botched cover-up; Americans are living neither in late-Soviet Ukraine nor in the era of Watergate, when a sordid exposé could sink a president. Of course, Trump was culpably irresponsible in making light of the disease. But he did so in the full glare of TV cameras. The president reveled in flouting the recommendations of eggheaded public health experts, correctly calculating that a large swath of his base was not concerned with conventional norms of truth or reason.

But the fact that neither Xi’s China nor Trump’s United States are a good match for the late Soviet Union doesn’t mean that Chernobyl is not relevant to our COVID-19 predicament.

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Ashoka’s moral empire

Sonam Kachru in Aeon:

In the Khyber valley of Northern Pakistan, three large boulders sit atop a hill commanding a beautiful prospect of the city of Mansehra. A low brick wall surrounds these boulders; a simple roof, mounted on four brick pillars, protects the rock faces from wind and rain. This structure preserves for posterity the words inscribed there: ‘Doing good is hard – Even beginning to do good is hard.’

The words are those of Ashoka Maurya, an Indian emperor who, from 268 to 234 BCE, ruled one of the largest and most cosmopolitan empires in South Asia. These words come from the opening lines of the fifth of 14 of Ashoka’s so-called ‘major rock edicts’, a remarkable anthology of texts, circa 257 BCE, in which Ashoka announced a visionary ethical project. Though the rock faces have eroded in Mansehra and the inscriptions there are now almost illegible, Ashoka’s message can be found on rock across the Indian subcontinent – all along the frontiers of his empire, from Pakistan to South India.

The message was no more restricted to a particular language than it was to a single place. Anthologised and inscribed across his vast empire onto freestanding boulders, dressed stone slabs and, beginning in 243 BCE, on monumental stone pillars, Ashoka’s ethical message was refined and rendered in a number of Indian vernaculars, as well as Greek and Aramaic. It was a vision intended to inspire people of different religions, from different regions, and across generations.

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Why the Working Class Votes Against Its Economic Interests

Jeff Madrick in The New York Times:

One of the mysteries in politics for decades now has been why white working-class Americans began to vote Republican in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. After all, it was Democrats who supported labor unions, higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, Medicare and generous Social Security, helping to lift workers into the middle class. Of course, an alternative economic view, led by economists like Milton Friedman, was that this turn toward the Republican Party was rational and served workers’ interests. He emphasized free markets, entrepreneurialism and the maximization of profit. These, Friedman argued, would raise wages for many and even most Americans.

But wages did not rise. And yet many in the working class kept voting Republican, still seemingly angered by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which was dedicated to helping the poor and assuring equal rights for people of color. In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan, income inequality began to rise sharply; wages for typical Americans stagnated and poverty and homelessness increased. Capital investment remained relatively weak despite deep tax cuts (as it does today under Donald Trump). At the same time, antitrust regulation was severely wounded, and giant corporations began to monopolize industry after industry.

In 2004, Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” tried to explain why a once Democratic state had turned resolutely Republican. His eloquent review of the rhetoric of the age was instructive. But the presidential election of 2016 sent the sharpest message yet. Working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin opted for Trump, and apparently against their economic interests. Trump had succeeded in appealing to their anger and the Democrats were caught flat-footed.

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The Chaotic Design of Trump’s Mail-In-Voting Rants

Sue Halpern in The New Yorker:

On Thursday, when Donald Trump casually suggested on Twitter that the November election be delayed because “Universal Mail-In Voting” would make it “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he was either setting the stage to contest the outcome or to explain away his impending defeat, or both. As the President should know by now, in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic is dangerous, especially for older Americans and those with underlying health conditions. Yet he and his chorus of enablers have made a habit of trash-talking voting by mail, claiming, erroneously, that it promotes fraud. It’s no accident that Trump’s tweet specifically assailed “Universal Mail-In Voting,” since the word “universal” is triggering for anyone who is afraid of the will of the people.

So far, only five states have nearly universal mail-in balloting. For most of them, it took years of legislative wrangling before it was adopted, and years of preparation before it was deployed. Additionally, thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have no-excuse absentee balloting (meaning that anyone can request an absentee ballot for any reason). And every state has the infrastructure to enable military and overseas voters to cast ballots from afar. (Inexplicably, according to Thursday’s tweet, Trump believes that absentee ballots are good and mail-in ballots are bad, even though they are the same thing.) All told, nearly eighty per cent of the electorate would be able to vote by mail in November.

Past primaries have offered a preview of the problems that can arise when significant numbers of voters choose this option. (Hint: the issue isn’t voter fraud.) Take California, a blue state, where over four million people voted by mail in February of 2008. The deluge was so great that election officials were still counting ballots weeks after the election. (One unexpected wrinkle: they had to iron thousands of ballots that had gotten crumpled in the mail, before they could feed them into the tabulator.) In New Jersey, another blue state, some voters found their ballots returned to them (and thus not counted) because the Postal Service scanned the wrong addresses; other citizens received hastily assembled ballots with the wrong slate of candidates. In New York City, where more than four hundred thousand ballots were cast by mail in the June primary, election officials do not expect to have a final vote tally for some jurisdictions until August. A hundred thousand have already been invalidated, some because they arrived too late, others because they weren’t signed or had a signature that didn’t match the signature on file.

These are some of the typical, non-malicious, ways that voters may find themselves disenfranchised.

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