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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

June 4, 2021

Air Date: June 4, 2021



Corruption In Brazilian Government / Karla Mendes

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In the wake of a Federal Supreme Court ruling Brazil’s environment minister and nine other government officials are facing allegations of corruption, including profiting from illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Karla Mendes, contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil, joins host Bobby Bascomb.  (09:02)

The G7 Gears Up to Talk Climate

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The heads of the G7, seven of the wealthiest countries in the world, are scheduled to meet in England starting June 11 to talk about plans to equitably address the climate crisis in the wake of Covid 19. Rachel Kyte, the Dean of the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and former senior World Bank and UN Climate official, joins host Steve Curwood. (11:12)

Climate Activists Take Board Seats at Exxon

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Climate activist investors recently claimed three seats on board of ExxonMobil, the largest energy company in the world. For more on how that might shift company priorities host Bobby Bascomb talks with Andrew Logan, a senior director at the non-profit Ceres. (10:46)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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On this week's trip Beyond the Headlines, Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra joins host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the resurgence of humpbacks in Australian waters. Then, a look at a Sri Lankan beach covered in 2 feet of plastic pellets called nurdles. Finally, the pair check the history books for a story where a nuclear power plant was converted into a massive park and solar-generating station. (04:35)

One Step Further: The Story of Katherine Johnson

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The Living on Earth Book Club recently took a look at the children’s book, One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission. It tells the story of Katherine Johnson, an African American woman who while living under Jim Crow in the south worked at NASA as a mathematician and helped put a man on the moon. Host Steve Curwood was joined by one of Katherine’s three daughters, Katherine Moore, who co-authored One Step Further to help share her mother's story. (11:09)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

210604 Transcript

HOSTS: Bobby Bascomb, Steve Curwood

GUESTS: Rachel Kyte, Andrew Logan, Karla Mendes, Katherine Moore

REPORTERS: Peter Dykstra


CURWOOD: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb

Climate Activist investors take two seats on Exxon’s board.

LOGAN: If they had gone out and launched a moral crusade saying that Exxon was a bad company and they were out destroying the earth that wouldn’t have gotten them very far but going out and arguing that Exxon was essentially destroying people’s retirement because they weren’t taking climate change seriously, that proved to be a much more powerful line of argument.

CURWOOD: Also, the story of Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician who helped put the first man on the moon.

MOORE: We say she was fearless. Because she didn't go into a job thinking, Oh, she had to be subservient to the white engineers. She went in, I know my math, they need me. I have a job to do.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth – Stick Around!

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]


Corruption In Brazilian Government

While laws exist to authorize logging in several areas of the Amazon, studies show that more than 80% of logging in the Amazon is illegal. (Photo: Felipe Werneck, IBAMA, Flickr AP, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb. Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is has surged to the highest rate in more than a decade. The spike in deforestation coincides with the tenure of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019. Critics say President Bolsonaro’s policies and rhetoric have encouraged illegal deforestation in the heart of the rainforest, often in indigenous territories. And now 10 top environmental officials in Mr. Bolsonaro’s government have been named in a probe alleging corruption. Most notably, Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, is under investigation for allegedly allowing the export of trees illegally harvested from the Amazon. The probe alleges a law firm in which Mr. Salles is a stakeholder profited from illegal sales to the tune of nearly 3 million dollars. For more, we turn now to Karla Mendes. She is the Brazil contributing editor for Mongabay and joins us from Rio de Janeiro. Welcome to Living on Earth Karla!

BASCOMB: Jair Bolsonaro will be up for re-election in October of 2022. Despite the environmental corruption charges leveled against members of his government and a parliamentary investigation aimed at Mr. Bolsonaro for his response to the Covid crisis, he still enjoys support from much of the Brazilian public.

MENDES: Thank you so much for this opportunity Bobby.

BASCOMB: Well, what exactly is Ricardo Salles, Brazil's Environment Minister accused of doing in this recent case?

MENDES: This news made big headlines everywhere because the environment minister now has been investigated in a probe. He is being accused of illegal trafficking of timber. There are some very suspicious transactions involving a consultant firm where he is a stakeholder, he owns 50% of this. So there was a huge police raid last week doing search with search warrants in at his office and the office of 10 high rank environmental officials in Brazil, São Paulo and Praia state. And the other thing is that they're accused of issuing retroactively certificates to benefit companies that allowed the exports of illegal timber to the US and Europe for exports.

Environment minister Ricardo Salles (right) with President Jair Bolsonaro (left). Salles who is under investigation for involvement in the alleged illegal export of Amazon timber after a ruling by the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court. (Photo: Alan Santos, PR, Flickr AP, CC BY 2.0)

BASCOMB: So they basically made fake certificates and gave them to people that already cut down trees illegally and they profited from it.

MENDES: Yeah, yeah. The timber trade, that's something you know, I've done some investigations into this supply chain and it's huge. We hear about wrongdoing everywhere, laundry schemes, you know, bribery schemes at state level, federal levels. But this one is really huge, because it's targeting the men who are supposed to be defending our environment.

BASCOMB: And you mentioned that there are 10, high ranking environmental officials who were implicated in this case, one of them is Eduardo Bim. He's the head of IBAMA, which is Brazil's equivalent of the EPA. I mean, that's a big deal.

MENDES: Yeah no, it is. I mean, the environmental agency that was supposed to defend the environment. So you know, since Bolsonaro took office, they changed the high rank positions of all environmental institutions, putting militaries, police, you know, many cases, people that don't have any knowledge about the specifics of the environment. And the ones who are technicians who are there doing their job, they've been hampered of doing it, not talking to press. You know, so what we are seeing now is somehow a result of two years of the, what has been dubbed as the 'Bolsonaro Era'.

BASCOMB: Now, Ricardo Salas, he took office as the environment minister in January of 2019, which was shortly after he was convicted of illegally changing zoning laws to benefit mining companies. Do I have that right?

MENDES: Yeah, no, that's right. You know, it was very controversial his nomination, because you think how someone who has been just convicted for favoring companies that damage the environment to be the head of the environmental ministry. So from the beginning it was really suspicious. And then last year, a year ago, it was in April 2020, Ricardo Sales was famous as well, because there was a leaked video from a ministry meeting where he said- look, all the press is just thinking about COVID-19 covering this and let's do what we need to do to facilitate, to ease these environmental laws. That all these environmental laws kind of hamper development. So they said let's take advantage of this and pass everything we need.

Karla Mendes is an award-winning Brazilian journalist working as a Rio de Janeiro-based Contributor Editor for Mongabay. She has been working as a correspondent for international outlets since 2015 and has specialized in covering environmental, land and property rights issues since 2017. (Photo: Fábio Nascimento)

BASCOMB: Now, Mr. Salas, was appointed to his office as Environment Minister by President Jair Bolsonaro of course. They both took office in 2019 and since then, deforestation in the Amazon has risen by roughly 50%. It's at its highest level in more than a decade. What's going on there? What kind of new rules have they put in place over the last two years that account for that dramatic increase?

MENDES: Yeah, no this is really huge. And it starts with their discourse that emboldens invasions of indigenous reserves. They position themselves against indigenous rights and they want to open up everything for development. I remember that two years ago just a few months after he took office, I was in the biggest indigenous gathering in Brasilia and I talked to many leaders and all of them they said that they saw a huge spike in land invasions since he took office only by his speech against them. And along these years, we saw several attempts to facilitate the destruction. He wants to open up indigenous people to mining and development projects. He tried to take the demarcation of indigenous reserves from the Ministry of Justice, where it has been for years and tried to put under the Ministry of Agriculture! Activists says it's like giving chicken to the foxes. So but then there was a huge, you know protest everywhere, international NGOs, activists, and this was hampered by the congress. And more recently, two weeks ago, many people said that Sales was right. They took advantage of COVID-19 to pass the things they wanted to do, because there was a huge inquiry, parliamentary inquiry into the COVID-19, accusing the government for lack of vaccines and all the things. They approved the bill that withdraws environmental impact assessment in licensing for development projects.

BASCOMB: If I understand you correctly, you're saying that the bill actually says we don't need to do environmental impact statements or any sort of assessment in the Amazon or in indigenous lands also before you do development? Is that right?

MENDES: Yeah, anywhere, anywhere, actually, because the current process occurs somewhat like this. There are several steps that a company, development projects should go through to be approved. So usually if they are indigenous people, traditional communities, you have to have either an environmental impact assessment ahead of the license to try to forecast the impact that could happen there, how to mitigate it, there are several phases. And this bill simply cuts everything and somehow relies on self licensing. Something that it's really, really insane. And so it was approved in the lower house, and now it was sent to the Senate. And it was hugely criticized by everyone who defends the environment. So if it is approved, I think that federal prosecutors, you know that there will be a legal battle because it's a huge setback. The situation was really bad already, imagine without that.

BASCOMB: Karla Mendes is the Brazil contributing editor for Mongabay. Karla, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

MENDES: Thank you so much.

BASCOMB: Jair Bolsonaro will be up for re-election in October of 2022. Despite the environmental corruption charges leveled against members of his government and a parliamentary investigation aimed at Mr. Bolsonaro for his response to the Covid crisis, he still enjoys support from much of the Brazilian public.

Related links:
- The Guardian | “Brazilian Police Raid Environmental Ministry Over ‘Illegal’ Timber Sales”
- Mongabay | “Brazil’s Environmental Minister Investigated for Alleged Illegal Timber Sales”
- Mongabay’s Series on Amazon Conservation
- Thomson Reuters Foundation News | “Guardians of the Forest”
- Mongabay | “Brazil’s environment minister faces second probe linked to illegal timber”

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MUSIC: Airto Moreira, “Tales From Home” on Identity, by Lendas, Arista Records]

CURWOOD: To get the stories behind the stories on Living on Earth as well as special updates please sign up for the Living on Earth newsletter. Every week you’ll find out about upcoming events including and get a look at show highlights and exclusive content. Just navigate to the Living on Earth website that’s loe.org and click on the newsletter link at the top of the page. That’s loe.org.

[MUSIC: Time For Three, “Banjo Love” on Time For Three, by R. Meyer, S. Hackman, N. Kendall, Z DePue/Arranged by Steven Hackman, Universal Music Classics]

CURWOOD: Coming up –7 of the richest countries in the world, the G7, are getting ready to meet and strategize accountability for the climate crisis in the wake of Covid19.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Sailors for the Sea and Oceana. Helping boaters race clean, sail green and protect the seas they love. More information at sailors for the sea dot org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Time For Three, “Banjo Love” on Time For Three, by R. Meyer, S. Hackman, N. Kendall, Z DePue/Arranged by Steven Hackman, Universal Music Classics]

The G7 Gears Up to Talk Climate

Image of Friends of the Earth activists protesting Japan’s financial investments in coal in 2019. Japan has promised to phase out overseas funding of coal by the end of 2021, along with the other G-7 countries after an environmental ministerial meeting in London. (Photo: Victor Barro, foe Japan, Flickr AP, CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Talk about a moment in the human history of Planet Earth: There’s the pandemic, looking better now in the US but still rough in many parts of the world; the economic crush from the pandemic made even worse by inequality, and precious little time left to avert climate change catastrophe. So seven of the richest nations known as the G7 are looking to change vaccination, taxation and finance policies to meet those challenges. Leaders of The UK, the EU, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States will meet starting June 11th in Cornwall England to address covid, taxes and calls by the International Energy agency and others to move their economies away from fossil fuels. Investors and courts are already pressuring energy companies to get on the path to net zero carbon emissions right now to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Rachel Kyte is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a former senior World Bank and UN Climate official. She says the means for success are obvious.

KYTE: Well, there's no real rocket science to the how. You need to put a price on the pollution that you want less of. That means an effective price on carbon. It means using policy and standards and guidelines to make it clear the level of efficiency that you want from cars and trucks, to ships and planes to buildings, to appliances. Increasingly, the emphasis is also using the financial sector and regulation around transparency and disclosure but also making clear where public procurement and public pension funds etc. should be investing for the long run. So you're starting to see a systematic closing down of the space where people want to be holding sort of a heavily carbonized product or a service. And increasingly, you see companies being asked to explain how they are going to continue to be viable companies through the transition.

CURWOOD: What about the equity here. You talk about a price on carbon, I think this last month, the EU price of a tonne of carbon hit what 56 euros, which is I don't know $70, $69. I mean, the price of carbon stood around 20 euros, I think before the the pandemic. So it's really going up. And while some say that this is needed, obviously, to trigger investments in cleaner technology, this can have a regressive effect when it comes to the tax burden on low and middle income communities for them to deal with or even industry in less wealthy places. So what does a rising carbon tax mean for the pockets of low and middle income communities? Do you think?

The G-7 summit will be hosted by the UK on June 11 and will be focused on recovering from the coronavirus pandemic as well as investing in jobs in the renewable energy sector. (Photo: Tom Brewster, Bureau of Land Management, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

KYTE: Well, you're quite right, any tax can be more or less regressive depending on how you apply that tax. And I think that there are a number of ways that have been used in different jurisdictions around the world to make sure that a carbon tax does not penalize those on lower incomes. You can levy the tax and then have the revenue from that tax flow back to the consumer in many different ways so it's not experienced regressively by people on low income. And I think that's been effectively done in British Columbia, across the EU and elsewhere. So I think one has to communicate it and what we see around the world as when carbon taxes are introduced, or when fossil fuel subsidies are withdrawn, unless there is an effective communication about you know, this is being changed but this is what it's going to result in for you in your pocket. I mean, you have to explain to people that they won't suffer at the level of their wallet. But I think that pricing pollution is the systemic way to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as the lifeblood of our economy. And it's not the only thing that needs to be done. It has to come with a raft of other policies, but it is the sort of necessary if insufficient policy step if we're really to move at speed and scale.

CURWOOD: There are countries who aren't part of the G-7 to play a major role when it comes to the carbon problem. There's China, India, and Russia, but also the petrostates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, what steps do these countries need to take in order for the planet to meet the Paris climate goals? Do you think?

KYTE: So you're quite right, that there are a number of major economies that are not in the G-7. Most of these economies are indicating that they are aiming to achieve a net zero economy, so an economy with net zero emissions by mid century. So China has said that it will get there by 2060, Japan, South Korea have come in at 2050. We've got other major economies like Brazil and Indonesia saying that they can get there too but they need help. We're expecting that India would come out with a revised ambition around net zero by mid century, sometime this year. I think they they've been distracted by the severity of the pandemic. Yeah. And then we've got the Irans and the Iraqs and the the gulf states, and also Russia and others, and every country now really needs to indicate how it's raising its ambition. The importance of the G-7 is that this in large part is the grouping of advanced economies that historically have been the perpetrators of most of the problem. It has been the industrial history of the G-7. that got us to this point in large part. And so when we think about the politics of climate change, it is a moment when there is leadership needed. And it's, it's about the G-7 saying, this is what we're going to do, we're going to lead by example. And we are going to stand in solidarity with countries who by no fault of their own, find themselves grappling with the extraordinary impacts of climate change already today and will do in the future. And that's the importance of the G-7’s leadership. This year in particular, we have the race to zero now. People are ratcheting up their ambition. But a lot of countries will need a lot of help to get there.

World leaders will be left to deal with recovering economically from the coronavirus pandemic and addressing a widening wealth gap while transitioning away from fossil fuel economies and into renewable energy. (Photo: Eric Sales, Asian Development Bank, Flickr, CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: You're giving me lots of hope here Rachel Kyte in, in a world where hope can sometimes be in short supply. What gives you so much optimism?

KYTE: Well, because we're, we're arguing about the right things. For the last few years, we're arguing about, you know, is it real? Is it manmade? Does it matter? Is it our fault? You know, there's lots of finger pointing. And really since September of last year, when both the EU and and China confirmed that they understand that their economies have to be at net zero by mid century and then with the advent of a Biden administration in the US coming back into the fold, you know, that's between the EU, China and the US that's 60% of global domestic products in the in the world, right. So now the question is, do we dare enough to imagine what the world would look like without carbon and the emissions that come from it as a sort of lifeblood, and if we are prepared to sort of elect those leaders keep those leaders in power and demand that kind of leadership from our leaders, then this isn't something that we can't do. Now, I'm a hopeful pessimist. There are lots of reasons why we should be very afraid. And there are lots of reasons why citizens have to hold their leaders to account and we have to demand leadership from them. But we've got enough money in the global economy to do it. It's it's badly distributed and it's not efficiently used. We've got a lot of technology already today that we could deploy, that would make an enormous difference in people's lives. We've just got to be good enough to do all of that.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about this. Right now, it seems that there's pressure from almost every angle on the fossil fuel industry. We've seen a shareholder revolt involving Exxon, and they'll be more about that, in this this broadcast. There are legal cases involving youth and climate organizations. And then there's this recent court decision in the Netherlands that ordered Shell to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by nearly half by the year 2030 from 2019. I believe the numbers 45% reduction in levels. I'm not sure but it sounds to me like this is the first time a court has decided that a major polluter has to cut emissions. So what do you think this court decision means when it comes to establishing legal precedents in climate related cases? And what does you think it mean in the UN and for that matter around the world?

Rachel Kyte is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former Senior World Bank and UN Climate Official. (Photo: World Bank Group)

KYTE: So previously, the Dutch courts that had agreed that the Dutch national plan wasn't ambitious enough and didn't protect its citizens. So we already had that case. And now we have the specific case demanding that Shell really cuts emissions, not sort of talk about the efficiency of the emissions that it produces. And that's fully in line with demanding that we move our economies towards net zero, we're now talking about actually keeping fossil fuel resources in the ground, not exploiting them. So the Dutch court is consistent with the direction of travel that everybody's agreed to based on the international science. So one could expect that this will have a ripple effect as others try similar court actions against other fossil fuel companies. That happened in the same week as shareholders at Chevron pushed for greater ambition. And then obviously, the attempt and the successful attempt in the end to to put different directors on the board of Exxon. All of this is actually related to the performance of these companies now and in the future. They've now formed less and less and less of a part of the S&P 500. Their profit levels have taken hammering over the last few years. And many of them are now making it more ambitious commitments but they are relying on offsets. The idea that some natured forest, somewhere else in the world will absorb the emissions that this company is going to release due to its activities. And I think that there is some deep skepticism that that's going to be a sufficiently ambitious way for the fossil fuel exploitative companies of the developed world and of the West and to move forward. There is also a deep inequity, I think, in the approach to offsets from some companies. Of course, nature is a solution and trading voluntarily the carbon sequestration capacity of a forest against a company or a country somewhere else in the world is going to form part of the way in which we move forward. But I think the question that is asked by many people in those countries is why does the sequestration capacity of our forests have to be used to mitigate the business development strategy of an oil and gas company in the North Sea. And so there's some really profound economic and moral questions that are being posed to these fossil fuel companies and I would expect to see more court cases not less in the future.

CURWOOD: Rachel Kyte is Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

KYTE: It's my pleasure. Take care.

Related links:
- The Guardian | “Climate Crisis: Rich Countries Falling Short On Vow To Help Other Ones”
- Reuters | “G20 Nations Should Join G7 Countries with Climate Pledges”
- The Guardian | “Richest Nations Agree to End Support for Coal Production Oversees”

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[MUSIC: Sharon Shannon, “Sea Shepherd” on Sacred Earth, by S. Shannon/J. Adams/J. Murray/S. Keita, Celtic Collections]

Climate Activists Take Board Seats at Exxon

Exxon reported a $22 billion loss last year amid the economic slowdown from COVID-19. (Photo: Mike Mozart, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BASCOMB: A small hedge fund company, named Engine One, recently claimed three seats on the board of directors for Exxon Mobil. Engine One is a group of activist investors with a goal of moving the energy giant towards combatting the climate crisis. Many of the world’s energy companies have begun to scale back fossil fuel investments though Exxon has doubled down on such deals, forecasting increasing demand for oil and gas for years to come and putting vast oil reserves on its balance sheet. But Exxon reported a 22 billion dollar loss last year amid the economic slowdown from Covid-19. That loss and a lack of planning for the climate crisis has investors worried prompting several investment companies to support Engine One in their bid to move the board towards action on climate change. For more, I’m joined now by Andrew Logan, a senior director at the sustainability non-profit, Ceres. Andrew Logan welcome to Living on Earth.

LOGAN: Thanks for having me.

BASCOMB: So tell me first about Engine No. 1, the activist investment group that claimed these seats on the Exxon board. Who are they? And what are their goals here?

LOGAN: Sure. Well, Engine No. 1 didn't exist until about a year ago. So they are a new fund, though started by two people, Chris James and Charlie Penner, who have a long history as activists in more traditional corporate venues. But I think they saw an opportunity, both with climate change more generally, but with Exxon Mobil, specifically, to take those techniques, the sort of tactics they've honed over years to pressure companies that don't want to move, and an opportunity to apply those to Exxon, a company that is sort of famous for not wanting to move. So they are a small fund, I think they have around $250 million under management, which makes them about 1,000th, the size of Exxon Mobil, so definitely a David versus Goliath kind of battle. But ultimately, you know, I think as we saw, this was a fight where size was not the most important variable.

BASCOMB: Yeah, it is a real David and Goliath situation. But Engine No. 1 was supported in this effort by BlackRock investments, which is the largest asset management company in the world, and the second largest holder of Exxon stock. Why did BlackRock put their weight behind this move towards cleaner energy?

LOGAN: Yeah, I mean, I think what was powerful about the Engine No. 1 campaign is that it was not just about climate change. And it wasn't just about financial management, which are both areas where investors have had concerns with Exxon Mobil's performance, but it really was about the intersection of the two, really hitting at the idea that for any company, but certainly for an oil and gas company, you know, having a good strategy, in the low carbon transition is really critical to being successful, you know, financially, that you can't have one without the other. And while you know, Engine No. 1 kind of launched on their own, and they had no support at first, you know, they managed with that argument to build, you know, significant support amongst some of the largest investors in the world over the course of the campaign. So starting with some big pension funds, like the California Teachers Retirement System, or the New York State, common retirement system. And then as you say, you know, as we got closer to the annual meeting, picking up support from the likes of BlackRock and even Vanguard. So I think it just goes to show that the argument that they put forward, that climate change is a key financial risk and opportunity for oil and gas companies, was able to get a lot of traction.

Investor activism, where shareholders of a company join together to vote for board members or proxies aimed at a certain goal, has seen a surge in recent years. (Photo: Herr Hartmann, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

BASCOMB: It just makes financial sense, as well as, you know, ethical sense at this point.

LOGAN: Exactly. I mean, if they had gone out and launched or a moral crusade, you know, saying that Exxon was a bad company, and they were out destroying the Earth, that wouldn't have gotten them very far. But, you know, going out and arguing that, that Exxon was essentially destroying people's retirements because it wasn't taking climate change seriously, you know, that proved to be much more powerful line of argument.

BASCOMB: So the activists now have three seats out of the 12 member board, but they're still outnumbered. What kind of influence can they have moving forward?

LOGAN: Well, that would be the big test of this whole strategy, because as you say, they are outnumbered on this board. And I think a lot will depend on how the remaining members of the board, you know, choose to view last week's vote, you know, I think if they're rational people, which one assumes they are, they have to see the vote, which resulted in some of their colleagues literally being tossed out of their jobs, as a rebuke of the company's strategy on climate change, and really rebuke of the board as a whole. So, you know, it would be logical for this board to really want to rethink and reassess, you know, both the direction they're taking the company in, but also, you know, whether or not they are sufficiently independent from management, because that was certainly one of the the main criticisms that was lobbed at them in this fight was that they were essentially, you know, a tool of the CEO. So, you know, while there are only two or three seats held by these activists, ultimately, we think the rest of the board will want to change tact as well. Otherwise, you know, we may find ourselves a year from now back at the annual meeting in the same position of seeing directors tossed out of their jobs.

BASCOMB: And what about pressure from the federal government at this point? I mean, President Biden was recently touting how great that all electric F150 is. It seems, you know, the federal government is making a hard push away from traditional energy sources like oil and gas.

LOGAN: Yeah. And I think that was, you know, that was partly why this campaign was so successful. I think it really came at the right time. I think one of the things that Exxon has failed is to sort of keep track of the ways in which the world has changed around it. So not just on the policy front. And obviously, the new administration has brought in a very different approach to energy, but just the way that the rest of the economy is changing. And decarbonizing. And just over the past, you know, year or so, we've seen the six biggest banks in the U.S. committing to decarbonize their lending portfolios, which is obviously critical for a company like Exxon that depends on that lending for a lot of its capital. We've seen the power sector decarbonize or commit to decarbonizing. And we've seen the auto sector, you know, committing to an electrified future. And we've seen other companies in the oil and gas sector, like BP and Shell, you know, showing that it's possible for, for an oil and gas company to pivot to a different business model. So, you know, I think the world has changed around the company, and Exxon, you know seemingly didn't notice, or I guess, didn't care. And, you know, certainly what this vote ought to signal to the company and its board is that it's time to re engage with reality.

Investors incorporating sustainability into their strategies often look at companies considering the “triple bottom line”: people, planet, profit. (Photo: Kurt Christensen, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

BASCOMB: Well, what kinds of changes are you expecting to see at ExxonMobil now, in light of this shake up on the board?

LOGAN: I mean, you know, we will look to see that the changes of Exxon, you know, largely in how it invests its capital. So this is a company that invests $20- $25 billion a year, you know, every year rain or shine. And, you know, historically, that flow of money has gone entirely into, you know, into filling up the world's energy mix with oil and gas. And so I think we'll be looking, as we head into the summer and fall and as a company sort of develops and releases its plans for the coming year or years, whether that investment flow starts to change. Will those tens of billions of dollars continue to go only into oil and gas, will we see the oil and gas business shrinking as it is, you know, say at BP? And will they diversify into other kinds of energy, you know, whether, you know, wind or solar or something maybe closer to their own kind of skills and capabilities, you know, like hydrogen or certain kinds of biofuels. But ultimately, you know, we'll have to follow the money and not the rhetoric and see if any change is actually happening on the ground.

BASCOMB: Exxon, of course, is the largest energy company in the world. How likely is it that we might see a similar shake up at one of their competitors like Shell or Chevron.

LOGAN: So I think that the victory that activists saw at Exxon Mobil is perhaps more important for the rest of the industry than it even is for Exxon. I mean, Exxon is one company, however big and important it may be. But you know, we know that the boards of other companies in this industry were following this campaign very closely. And I think the potential that they themselves might be tossed out of a job in the future for not doing enough to address climate change will certainly, you know, concentrate their mind in a way that I think will be extremely helpful, particularly as investors, you know, push them to set a more ambitious bar for addressing climate change. So I think certainly Chevron stands out. It's a company that is actually not that different from Exxon and that path is taken are really not taken in a decarbonizing world. So I think we'll see investor attention turn there. And certainly, you know, I think the Exxon victory, you know, ought to have softened up the ground quite a bit. So that's going to be much harder for, you know, for Chevron to refuse investor demands for more ambitious action. And in fact, you know, we saw Chevron had an annual meeting on the same day as Exxon Mobil's, and there was a proposal on the ballot for investors to vote on at Chevron that asked the company to set a greenhouse gas reduction target and one that included not just the emissions from its own operations, but emissions from the use of its product. So the burning of gasoline in cars, the burning of natural gas, and power plants. And that proposal, you know, won by actually a fairly large amount, it got, you know, over 60% of the vote, and you know, in a previous era, I think the Chevron board would have looked at that vote and thought, oh, that's interesting, you know, maybe we should put out a new report or talk to investors a bit more. You know, now, I think with, you know, activists having shown that they are willing to, you know, go at the boards of companies that aren't responsive, I think we'll see the Chevron board, really reckoning with the need to set a strong target where right now there isn't one for that company.

Andrew Logan is a senior director at Ceres. (Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Logan)

BASCOMB: And what does this mean for individual investors? You know, not somebody that's got millions invested, but somebody with an IRA or a 401k, that maybe has a little bit of money invested in these types of companies?

LOGAN: Yeah, well, I think what we have seen this year, not just at Exxon, but at you know, a lot of the oil and gas companies where proposals are going to a vote is that the individual investor actually has a powerful voice. You know, these votes, in the end were determined by these very large, you know, asset managers, you know, groups like Fidelity or Vanguard or State Street or BlackRock, you know, where many of us have our 401K's or our 403B's. And the, you know, these investors have been slow to act over time. And I think, partly it's because they had not historically thought that their clients cared very much. But I think what we've seen in the last year or two is that they are hearing from, from their clients, individuals, like the people listening to this show, and I think it's going to be important for them to continue to hear from individuals going forward, both that you know, we like what they've done this year, or at least we liked what they started and want to see them following through.

BASCOMB: Andrew Logan is a senior director at Ceres. Thank you so much for taking the time with me today, Andrew.

LOGAN: Thanks for having me.

Related links:
- The New York Times | “Exxon Board to Get a Third Activist Pushing Cleaner Energy”
- Reuters | “Engine No. 1 Extends Gains with A Third Seat on Exxon Board”
- Andrew Logan’s Bio
- Find Ceres online
- Find Engine No. 1 online

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[MUSIC: Cyrus Chestnut, “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot,” recorded at Pwop Studios, traditional African-American, Recorded at Pwop Studios in New London, CT, December 19, 2008]

CURWOOD: Coming up – A look at the life of Katherine Johnson, an African American female mathematician who worked at NASA in the 1960s. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from you, our listeners, and United Technologies, combining passion for science with engineering to create solutions designed for sustainability in aerospace, building industries, and food refrigeration.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Mario Grigorov, “Magic Circus” on Paris To Cuba, by Mario Grigorov, Warm & Genuine Records]

Beyond the Headlines

A humpback whale off the shore of the Gold Coast in Australia. (Photo: Steve Austin, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

BASCOMB: It’s living on Earth. I'm Bobby Bascomb. It's time for a trip now beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter's and editor with Environmental Health News that's ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Hey there Peter, what do you have for us this week?

DYKSTRA: Hi Bobby. A little good news, bad news item from Australia. And we'll get the bad news out of the way quickly. And first, the mild Australian winters that have happened in the last several years have helped cause a population explosion of crop eating mice all over the southeastern part of the country, the state of New South Wales. Farmers are desperate to control them. They've turned to a banned pesticide to try and control these mice. And that climate change and all those mild winters are a part of the cause.

BASCOMB: Oh man, that sounds like a problem. Well, what's the good news from Australia?

DYKSTRA: The good news is really cool. And that's that humpback whales, once seriously endangered in the southern hemisphere, have made an absolutely spectacular comeback. Experts estimate there are about 40,000 humpbacks that migrate each year between the southern oceans around Antarctica and the oceans around Australia. And there are 40,000 there used to be 1500 a half century ago, mostly wiped out due to wailing.

BASCOMB: Wow, that's an amazing recovery though 1500 to 40,000 in just 50 years. How do they do it?

DYKSTRA: No whaling is a big help. Whaling was banned in Australia in 1978. The fleet's from the former Soviet Union and Japan that used to go down to the Antarctic, no longer touch humpback whales. Japan is the only nation that goes down there at all. And humpbacks have been completely protected from hunting. Their food source is mainly krill, those tiny little crustaceans, and although krill are under some threat from fishing, in the southern oceans around Antarctica, humpbacks have still been able to get their fill of krill. And so they're doing well.

BASCOMB: Wow, that's amazing. Let's hope that trajectory continues. What else do you have for us this week?

DYKSTRA: We go over to the beaches of Sri Lanka. They are facing what some have called the worst beach pollution problem in history. All from a wrecked freighter, the MV Express Pearl registered in Singapore. It's sinking and burning off the coast of Sri Lanka and releasing a big part of its cargo. Those little plastic granules called nurdles. The nurdles are washing up on the beach and in some areas of the beach they're reportedly two feet thick. Now you live in New England two feet of snow isn't a big deal and the snow goes away on its own. But how about nearly two feet of plastic nurdles that only go away if humans shovel it away.

BASCOMB: Oh my gosh, what a disaster. I mean, it's both an ecological disaster as we know fish and all sorts of marine life eat those little plastic nurdles, mistaking them for food and then I would think the fishermen I mean, how you gonna make a living if the fish are polluted and the beaches are full of plastic.

DYKSTRA: And it's a global problem. You know, I first saw tons of nurdles on a beach, a once pristine beach in Costa Rica back in 1986. And I had no idea that it would become as big a menace microplastics in all sorts of animals in our own diets as it's become, it could be a twin menace with climate change.

BASCOMB: Yeah, it's certainly right up there. Well, what do you have for us from the history books this week?

DYKSTRA: June 7th 1989 voters in that referendum in the city of Sacramento, California, voted to close the municipally owned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. And today that site is a 400 acre park with a sizable solar generating station.

BASCOMB: Wow, that's amazing. So the ratepayers themselves decided to get rid of nuclear in favor of solar.

An aerial photograph in 2007 of Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, no longer in operation. (Photo: Hajhouse, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: Because at that particular plant, they were paying too much rate. The plant was very inefficient. It averaged about 40% of capacity. voters had had enough and the anti-nuke forces beat the pro-nuke forces in the campaign. And won by six points.

BASCOMB: Well, that was a pretty close vote and now they have a park to show for it.

DYKSTRA: They do and a solar station.

BASCOMB: Yeah. Hey, that's great too. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That's ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. We'll talk to you again real soon.

DYKSTRA: All right, Bobby, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.

BASCOMB: There’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth website. That's loe.org.

Related links:
- AP News | “Plague of Ravenous, Destructive Mice Tormenting Australians”
- Voice of America | “Australian Humpback Whale Numbers Surge but Scientists Warn of Climate Change Threat”
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation | “Sri Lanka Faces ‘Worst Beach Pollution’ in History from Burning Ship”
- Read more on Rancho Seco Recreation Area

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[MUSIC: Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, “Athol Brose” on Shuffle.Play.Listen, by Cocteau Twins, Oxingale Records]

One Step Further: The Story of Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, watching the movie premiere of Hidden Figures on December 1, 2016. (Photo: Aubrey Gemignani, NASA, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: The compelling story of a mathematics genius who grew up as an African American girl during the era of Jim Crow shows the sky isn’t even the limit, when one considers outer space. The Living on Earth Book Club recently looked at a graphic book for children called One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission that tells the story of Katherine Johnson. You may know that name as she was the NASA employee who did the hand calculations for many of America’s earliest manned space voyages and her story was featured in movie Hidden Figures. One scene shows her as a child prodigy amazing a teacher:

YOUNG KATHERINE: If the product of two terms is zero, then common sense says at least one of the two terms has to be zero to start with. So, if you move all the terms over to one side, you can put the quadratics into a form that can be factored, allowing that side of the equation to equal zero. Once you’ve done that, it’s pretty straightforward from there.

TEACHER: In all my years of teaching, I’ve never seen a mind like the one your daughter has.

CURWOOD: Hidden Figures tells the story of three Black female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, and their lives as they worked as human computers at NASA during the Space Race. The film earned three Academy Award nominations and several dozen awards after its release in 2016, and Katherine started to write her own autobiography and memoir. Katherine Johnson passed away in February 2020, at the age of 101, leaving behind her pioneering legacy in astrophysics and three daughters. For our live book club event we were joined by one of those daughters, Katherine Moore, named after her mother, who is also a coauthor of this picture book for children. Katherine Moore told us her mother showed signs of being a math genius even before she had begun school – around the time when a young child might be picking up this very picture book and reading about Katherine’s Johnson’s life. The story goes that her family was told by a neighbor that

MOORE: At four years old, she was walking up the street and said, well, where are you going, little girl. She said my brother is having trouble with math in school, and I'm going to help him. She was the youngest. My grandfather did not stop her or make her go home at four that the friend of the grandmother said, I think I need to start a kindergarten class, she needs to be in school. And that's how it started.

CURWOOD: And Katherine Johnson passed down her fascination with numbers to her own children:

MOORE: And her love of numbers. She said, I just like numbers. They were fun. I counted the plates and the saucers and the steps to church. She counted everything; she really did. And I can remember as a child, we would ride in the car because that's how you traveled. And she'd say, all right, who can add up the numbers on the license plate the fastest. And we'd all do it. So, we were all good in math, because we had fun from the beginning.

CURWOOD: Katherine Johnson graduated high school at the age of 14, and enrolled at the historically Black university, West Virginia State College where her genius was recognized and nurtured. Later on for graduate school she was hand-picked to be one of three students to de-segregate West Virginia University in 1939.

Katherine Johnson at NASA in 1966. (Photo: NASA, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)


MOORE: She actually had a professor in college, W. W. Schieffelin Claytor was his name. And in those days, if you think about it, a lot of the teachers that were in our HBCUs, back in the 20s and 30s were very frustrated doctors and lawyers and people that could not get jobs, other than teaching other black children. So, he was there. She was so good at math. He said, you'd make a good research mathematician, because that was his passion. But he never got to do what his passion was. And he said, and if that's what your job is going to be, I'm gonna see that you're prepared. So, he wrote a course where she was the only student.


CURWOOD: Of course, Katherine Johnson was a Black woman in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow era. Her daughter recalled that the old adage of Black people having to be “twice as good to get half as much” and says that was certainly true in Katherine’s case. But Katherine Johnson figured out how to finesse the racism that she faced.

MOORE: You don't rock the boat; you just found another way to go around the boat. And I think what she taught us was, you can do what you have to do and stay in your lane. But the minute there's an opportunity, you take it. You don't have to be afraid because her father taught her, Katherine. You're no better than anybody else. But nobody's better than you. And that's how she lived her life.


MOORE: I know what the rules say, I don't have to agree with them. But they don't have to, you know, kill my spirit. I'm not gonna allow that. And they just worked around it. So, the times were hard, you know, there were rough spots. But that was not her way. Her way was just to do her job.


CURWOOD: Before there was NASA there was the, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where Katherine Johnson started working at the age of 35. She started off in the pool of Black women performing mathematical computations for the all-male, all-white flight research teams. In those days the human mathematicians were called computers.

MOORE: She went into the West computers, the group of women. They would come every morning. And say we have some engineers, they're looking forward to mathematicians who can do A, B and C. So this particular day, when they came, Dorothy Vaughn said, Oh, I know just the girl for that job. And that's how she got to the flight mechanics branch, which is where she ended up staying the rest of her 33 years at NASA. It was almost as if her steps were ordered, because she ended up in the right place at the right time for the right job.


CURWOOD: And while Katherine Johnson had to fight at times to be acknowledged for her exceptional mind and math skills, she nevertheless played a critical role in some of the most important moments in the American space race. Her brain had to juggle analytic geometry, celestial mechanics and rocket science to compute trajectories for missions including the first spaceflight of Alan Shepherd, the first American astronaut in space, and the Apollo 11 voyage to the Moon and back. Notably, before John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, he personally requested she check the calculations for his flight.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. entering the Mercury capsule “Friendship 7”. Before Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, he asked for Katherine Johnson to personally check over the flight calculations to ensure they were correct. (Photo: NASA, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

MOORE: You saw how Glenn was. He said, well, I don't know if I trust the computer. He knew that there was a woman there who always did the math, and it was always accurate. He said, if she says they're right, then I'll trust the computer because the computer had worked out what they needed. But he wanted to know that by hand, if she says they are right, then I'll go.



CURWOOD: Katherine Johnson’s daughter was a college freshman that day.

MOORE: I was here at Bennett at the time. And that's when I really found out what it was she did. Because her picture was on the front page of the newspaper in March of 1962. And I looked down in the library, and I said, that's my mother. And when you read the article, it says the headline said lady mathematician, at NASA gets man to space, something like that. I have the picture framed somewhere. But the point I'm making is the work was secret. She'd come home every day; she didn't bring anything home. But that important work was what she was doing.

CURWOOD: Katherine’ Johnson’s legacy continues to resonate to this day, and her name now appears everywhere from NASA’s Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility to a spacecraft called the SS Katherine Johnson, launched in February 2021 to resupply the International Space Station. Also in 2021, for National Women’s Month, Katherine Johnson was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. We asked Katherine Moore about which of her mother’s honors she and her mother were most proud of:

Katherine Johnson, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015. (Photo: Bill Ingalls, NASA, Public Domain)

MOORE: I have to say the experiences of hearing what people think of her. It would be very difficult to choose, but I'll tell you how she felt when she got the invitation to go to the White House with President and Mrs. Obama. She said and he kissed me on my cheek because she was able to go, it was just it was a thrill of a lifetime. But she didn't do any of it for awards.


CURWOOD: Katherine Johnson’s story has been told many times over in Hidden Figures, in her own autobiography, and memoir, and now this children’s book. I asked Katherine Moore about the importance of sharing this story with children, especially the parts about her mother’s struggles as a woman working with a white all-male engineering team during Jim Crow, a decision made by the editors at National Geographic

MOORE: I didn't even know about how it was going to turn out because we didn't put it together this way. This is how they summarized her story. And I think it just played more into “in spite of” - you can be successful. You can dream dreams. You can teach people things, no matter what you look like. And I told my sister, I said, I never could have done this on my own, it would have just been, you know, tell her story and all. But they wanted to put it in perspective. And I just think it makes it that much more meaningful.

Two of Katherine Johnson’s daughters, and co-authors of One Step Further , Katherine Moore (left) and Joylette Hylick (center) at a NASA Black History Month program in February 2016. (Photo: Aubrey Gemignani, NASA, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


CURWOOD: That’s Katherine Moore, on One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission, the story of her mother, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Related links:
- Elizabeth Johnson memoir: My Remarkable Journey
- More on Katherine Johnson at NASA’s website
- Space.com | “Katherine Johnson: Pioneering NASA Mathematician”
- The New York Times | “Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA”

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Paloma Beltran, Grace Callahan, Jenni Doering, Jay Feinstein, Mark Seth Lender, Don Lyman, Aynsley O’Neill, Jake Rego, Natalie Seo, and Jolanda Omari.

BASCOMB: Tom Tiger engineered our show. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram at livingonearthradio. I’m Bobby Bascomb

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening!

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening!

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