Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Migration, security threats run together in warming world

Today is Thursday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

The Biden administration issued an ominous forecast for the planet on Thursday morning, with one official declaring that "no country will be spared from the challenges directly related to climate change," according to CNN.

The official was introducing a series of reports from key federal agencies on impacts of climate change, which ranged from a White House study on the rise in global migration, to a Defense Department review of security risks, to upcoming reports from the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Homeland Security.

The White House migration report dissects a feedback loop in which heightened migration can result from - as well as lead to -  greater instability and violence by "non-state armed groups," creating a cycle that erodes the ability of destination countries to respond effectively to climate disruption.

The study "was very careful not to frame migration as a purely negative coping mechanism" but stressed the need for it to become a "safe, orderly and humane pathway," the official said.

Today we're looking at other causes and effects of that climate disruption. First, a report finds that plastics are on track to contribute more to global warming than coal plants by the end of the decade. Then, the head of disaster operations for the Red Cross discusses how his organization is preparing for a world in which we can expect crises to keep getting worse.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let's get to it.

Plastic will soon trump coal as climate threat: study 

The U.S. plastics industry's contribution to climate change is on course to surpass that of coal-fired power plants by 2030, a new study has found.

Plastics are responsible for generating at least 232 million tons of carbon-based emissions per year - equivalent to the average emissions from 116 average-sized coal-fired facilities, according to the report, published by Bennington College's Beyond Plastics initiative.

In 2020 alone, the plastic industry's reported emissions rose by 10 million tons over 2019, the authors found. Meanwhile, construction is currently underway on another 12 facilities, with 15 in planning processes - meaning that altogether, the new sites could emit more than 40 million additional tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025, according to the study.

"The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation," Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, said in a statement.

'Petrochemical buildout' outweighs other gains: The petrochemical industry, according to Enck, is "building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics," she added. "This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change."

Praising the recent closure of 65 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants, the authors stressed that the increase in plastics production is outweighing those gains.

"A severe undercounting" of emissions: Although the U.S. plastics industry reported releasing 114 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, an analysis by the Maine-based firm Material Research identified "a severe undercounting of plastics' climate impacts," a news release from Beyond Plastics said.

That analysis examined data from federal agencies, including the EPA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, and identified an additional 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated from other stages of plastics production - the equivalent of another 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants, the report said.

"This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry's climate impact," Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report's author, said in a statement.



At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future.


Environmental benefits of plastics: In response to the report, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) - which represents major oil and chemical firms - said that the study "fails to recognize the many environmental benefits plastics provide that move society toward a lower carbon future."

Baca touted plastic's potential to drive forward "a more circular economy," or one that focuses on extending the lifecycle of products and reducing waste. Advanced recycling is "gaining momentum," while plastic packaging requires less material to perform the same function as glass, metal or paper, according to Baca. 

"Like other manufacturing processes, plastics manufacturing does emit greenhouse gases," Baca said, noting that plastics enable the production of lighter vehicles, wind turbine blades and foam insulation.

"Plastics can ultimately result in a net savings of greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycles compared to the use of many alternatives," he added.

An opportunity in plant-based plastics: Jessica Bowman, president of the Plant Based Products Council (PBPC), voiced her support for the report, which she said "confirms our perspective that plastics and other products we use every day have significant climate impacts."

"Plant-based products present an opportunity to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels," she added.Bowman, who was not involved with the study, stressed that plant-based products "are the epitome of the circular economy," particularly when made to be compostable or recyclable.  

Last words: "We're not going to get rid of all the products that we need and use every day," Bowman said. "We certainly could use less products - but for things we need, being able to make them in a better way, making them from renewable inputs, is really critical." 

To read the full story, please click here.

In chaotic world, planning for disaster is everyone's job

As the country's climate becomes more unstable and its social fabric more strained, small nonprofit disaster relief organizations are springing up to help communities deal with crises.

"Maybe they pivoted from supporting schools, or distributing supplies" to giving out meals after a hurricane, Trevor Riggen, head of disaster operations at the American Red Cross, told Equilibrium. 

Cooperating with these groups is a crucial part of the future of emergency preparedness, Riggen said. "Those agencies bring huge resources to the table, and know the community much better than someone coming from outside."

Riggen sat down with Equilibrium on Thursday to share his thoughts on preparing for the disasters of the future.

What led to the rise of these organizations? Need. Disaster has become a "chronic condition for a lot of communities," Riggen said, forcing existing local-level organizations to adapt.

How do big agencies like the Red Cross and FEMA work with these groups? "Presence is key," Riggen said. "It's an age-old thing in disaster work: 'Don't exchange business cards in the middle of a disaster.'"

For example, relief organizations can leverage lower-scale, more frequent incidents - emergencies rather than disasters - to build a network. Among the 60,000 events the Red Cross finds itself responding to every year are 200 single-family house fires per day, Riggen said.

These give the organization "a starting point" to help gauge individual and communal readiness to inevitable disasters, and to meet local emergency responders and community groups, he added.



At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future.


What else can emergency managers do? "Understand the forecast," Riggen said. "In decades past, we focused on fighting the next disaster like it would be much like the last one. After Katrina, we focused on averting the next Katrina."

What's wrong with that? The future will not be like the past, he said. Meanwhile, Riggen added, the level of vulnerability in communities is "changing every day, and in most communities it's getting worse." 

With "inequality, food security, healthcare and education - we have to assume we're starting from a different starting point on the next disaster," he said.

Then there's climate change. The 2016 floods in Baton Rouge, which killed 60 people and caused $10 to $15 billion in property damage, "were a watershed for us: since then, large-scale, complex, climate-driven disasters have been happening across the country, and it's getting faster and more severe," Riggen said. 

There were 22 natural disasters in 2020 that cost over $1 billion - a number that Riggen predicted will be matched this year and passed in future years. 

That means that plans for the 2030s and 2040 should assume many communities have to plan for a "much worse" level of local vulnerability and scale of climate disaster - and not simply how to solve current-level problems with current-level resources, Riggen said.

How do you plan for unpredictable disasters, like Texas ice storms or Northwest heat waves? You build the kinds of resilience that work whatever the disaster is, according to Riggen. 

"Take a hurricane: the visible impacts are storm surge, flooding, the house that's blown down," he said.

But the storm itself, he explained, doesn't demonstrate a community's vulnerability to a hurricane. Rather, that vulnerability "starts with asking where are people starting before the disaster happened," according to Riggen. 

"Do they have the resources to evacuate? A preparedness plan? A couple days of food?" he asked. "All those vulnerabilities make us think about that response differently."

How so? Because to some extent, it doesn't matter if you can't live in your house because of a wildfire, hurricane or long-term power failure. 

"Food banks, healthcare, emergency housing - we can put that suite of services into almost any disaster scenario, because they're focused on the person, not how that displacement was caused," Riggen said.

That approach to planning, he said, "gets you out the disaster-based box," he added.

Last words: "In thinking about vulnerability, we have to ask: how do we get people who start in a different place to end up with the same result?" Riggen said.

Thursday Throwdowns

Boris Johnson, Bill Gates 'throwing money' toward green energy, but provide minimal details

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Bill Gates launched a £400 million ($552 million) partnership on Tuesday to boost green energy investment, with half the funds coming from the U.K. government and the other half raised from the private sector, the Prime Minister's Office announced.  
  • But Tom Peck, a political sketch writer for the Independent, ridiculed the partners, writing that they "will definitely save the world - just don't bother with the details." 
  • The prime minister and the billionaire, according to Peck, may simply be "throwing the money at the problem, generating headlines, but with no real clue what to actually do."
  • Peck criticized Gates for his "guilty pleasure" of flying around the world in his private jets and Johnson for writing climate denial columns just a decade ago. He also pointed out how the two men seemed confused about the amount they were investing. 
  • At the end of their announcement, Johnson declared that the U.K. was "putting in £200m, I think Bill is putting in £200m," while Gates then corrected him that it was actually "four hundred each," according to Peck. But then, he wrote, it turned out that "Johnson had been right the first time."

Document leaks show pushback against U.N. climate recommendations

  • A document leak uncovered by BBC News demonstrated how several countries are working to change a key scientific report on how to combat climate change.
  • Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia have demanded that the U.N. play down the urgency to transition away from fossil fuels - pushing back on previous U.N. recommendations that could keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the BBC reported.
  • Within the documents are more than 32,000 submissions from governments, companies and other global parties, sent to a U.N. team of scientists that is collecting scientific evidence as to how to tackle climate change, according to the BBC. 
  • An adviser to the Saudi oil ministry asked that "phrases like 'the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales'" be eliminated, while an Australian official rejected the idea that shutting down coal-fired plants is necessary, the BBC reported.

Please visit The Hill's sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We'll see you on Friday.