14 Feb

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

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If a company that made its name in oil wants us to believe it can be part of the climate solution, it needs to stop drilling

Bernard Looney

‘BP’s new boss, Bernard Looney, seems to be banking on the “net” in net zero doing a lot of heavy lifting.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

BP’s got a new boss, Bernard Looney. He doesn’t wear a tie, he’s on Instagram and he’s going to shrink its carbon footprint to “net zero” by 2050. Is this for real?

It’s a sign the tide is turning. Maybe not enough to save us from catastrophic sea-level rises, but a turn nonetheless. The oil industry is incredibly savvy when it comes to public opinion, and can see the steady erosion of its “social licence to operate” (a company’s ability to go about its business without too much challenge). It has been struggling to recruit young people for years, well before the school climate strikes started.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and National Galleries Scotland have both turned their back on BP sponsorship in recent months, and last weekend more than a thousand people turned up at the British Museum to protest at the firm’s involvement there.

BP is not the first oil company to give itself a lick of green paint to appear more acceptable in this era of increasing climate concern. We’ve seen Statoil dropping the word “oil” with the refreshed identity of Equinor, and Dong (Danish Oil and Natural Gas) relaunched as the renewable energy company Ørsted. It’s hard to see Equinor as anything more than greenwash while it’s still drilling the Arctic, but Ørsted may yet become the world’s first green energy supermajor, betting on the power of offshore wind to eventually see off natural gas. Shell is also keen to show off its green credentials, as anyone who has seen its multimillion pound advertising campaign can tell. It’s scared, or it wouldn’t bother.

BP has been here before, with a £100m “Beyond Petroleum” rebrand in the early noughties. Alongside a new sunflower logo, this emphasised the company’s commitment to wind, solar and biofuels alongside oil and gas, but renewables remained a small part of its portfolio. Clean energy is good for press photos, but not really central to BP’s core business model. Environmentalist Jonathon Porritt originally tried to engage in its initiatives, but turned away in disgust, declaring it was impossible for today’s oil majors to change at the radical speed required.

If BP is serious about rising to the challenge of the climate crisis, it will have to go the extra mile to convince us. It’s one thing for a computer company to make bold claims on climate action (as Microsoft did last month, announcing it would be “carbon negative” by 2030), but it’s another for an oil major. And yet, so far, Looney’s new vision is light on specifics. Apparently we have to wait until September for the details, but it does seem clear that BP will still be selling oil and gas.

BP seems to be banking on the “net” in net zero doing a lot of heavy lifting. Which leaves the rather basic question: how does it plan to balance out carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels? Trees are great for helping us mop up some of the damage we’ve already caused, and various other technological options might turn out to be useful on a small scale. Capturing carbon from the air and using it to make plastic; adding iron to the ocean to speed up its ability to absorb carbon; or genetically modifying trees so they have larger, carbon-sucking roots, for example. But a lot of this is still a bit sci-fi, and none of it is ever likely to soak up the quantities of oil and gas BP plans to keep selling.

Looney says he wants to help the world to get to net zero, not just BP. It is, apparently, shutting down the “Possibilities Everywhere” ad campaign that showcased its (relatively small-scale) work on clean energy, instead funnelling resources into campaigns that foster “the right kind of change”.

This is the part of the project we should perhaps be most wary of. It’s worth remembering that with the Beyond Petroleum push in the noughties, BP popularised the idea of a “carbon footprint”. The approach seemed to mean well but was effective at individualising the causes of climate crisis, pulling attention away from the sorts of large-scale change that would really challenge the fossil fuel companies.

Beware oil execs in environmentalists’ clothing. They may simply wish to seize the growing energy for change and steer it towards their own ends: the continued burning of fossil fuels.

The most offensively disingenuous idea at the heart of this flashy new strategy is that BP finally “gets” the climate crisis. Oil runs off many things, and one of them is strong science. Fossil fuel companies have long known their business was dangerous and yet they chose to keep profiting off it. Indeed, new data shows quite how much they profited ($332bn in the last three decades in the case of BP). BP hasn’t suddenly got a dose of the climate heebie-jeebies, it’s just worried that, finally, you have.

The Instagramming, tie-free Looney might reflect a new phase in the oil business, but is it still business as usual underneath? It’s hard not to see the rhetorical use of the “net” in net zero as a bit of smoke and mirrors, a way of making it sound as if it is taking the crisis seriously while avoiding the simple truth: we need to stop burning fossil fuels.

If BP really wants us to believe that a company that made its name in oil can be part of the solution, it needs to stop drilling. It’s as simple as that. Hold retirement parties for refineries and retrain workers for a zero-carbon future, and do it fast. That might actually be something worth Instagramming about.

Alice Bell is co-director at the climate change charity Possible

World Politics

United States

The administration’s anti-immigrant agenda has made people fearful of accepting help they are legally entitled to

Volunteers with Second Harvest Food Bank hand out supplies at a school in Menlo Park, California.

Volunteers with Second Harvest Food Bank hand out supplies at a school in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

On a recent Tuesday morning, Patricia walked into the Salvation Army in Redwood City, a community south of San Francisco, because a friend told her they could help her feed her family without fear of reprisal from US immigration officials.

But Patricia, an undocumented migrant from Guatemala, whose last name the Guardian has agreed to withhold, still had questions.

“Can I still get food stamps even though I don’t have papers?” she asked in Spanish. “If I do, will they take my kids away?”

Vicky Avila Medrano, an outreach worker for Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, which distributes food at 1,000 sites across the Bay Area including the Salvation Army, reassured Patricia that accepting food assistance for her US-born children would not invite the scrutiny of immigration officials. “Your children still have a right to food. This is nothing that immigration can hold against you,” she said.

The Trump administration’s relentless anti-immigrant agenda has made a growing number of immigrants like Patricia fearful of accepting assistance and benefits they or their children are legally entitled to.

Their fears are compounded by a US supreme court ruling late last month that allows the administration to expand the “public charge” criteria, which officials have used for more than a century to determine which immigrants were likely to become dependent on the government, and thus ineligible to enter the US or obtain a green card.

“Public charge” has historically been reserved for immigrants receiving cash assistance or who are likely to become institutionalized and dependent on long-term care.Now, though, immigration officials will consider public benefits, including food stamps, housing vouchers and medical care. Public charge will be applied to anyone who receives one or more public benefits for more than 12 months during the 36-month period.

Because receiving two benefits in one month will count as two months worth of benefits, a relatively small amount of assistance could put people over the threshold. A person’s savings, credit score and ability to speak English will also be considered.

Officials are still required to look at the totality of a person’s circumstances, but advocates say receiving assistance will weigh more heavily against them and result in greater scrutiny of applications.

Policy experts and immigrant rights advocates say the changes will directly apply to a relatively small group of people, primarily those applying for a visa or green card. The changes won’t apply to US citizens, refugees, asylees and other protected groups, as well as those who already have green cards.

But they warn that a much larger chilling effect will ripple through communities, keeping eligible immigrants from seeking assistance for food or medical care to which they, or their children, are duly entitled.

In fact, they say it’s already happening.

After Medrano explained to Patricia that while Patricia is undocumented and not entitled to CalFresh aid, California’s food assistance program, her US-born children ar

What else has she heard about the public charge rule, Medrano wanted to know.

“I heard they’re going to take away your food, take away everything. And you have to pay it back,” Patricia said.

The fears are familiar to Medrano, who has done outreach work for Second Harvest for the past six years.

“This isn’t really new,” Medrano said. “What is new is a president who talks about it in order to scare people.”

‘People are scared’

Medrano estimates that about half of the 20 new clients she speaks with on a typical day ask about the public charge rule.

One woman who arrived at the Salvation Army minutes after Patricia and declined to give her name was a lawful resident. She has two children, but was reluctant to enroll in CalFresh fearing it could affect her application for a green card.

She eventually applied, but had second thoughts. “Now I just wait and hope it doesn’t affect my case,” she said.

Jennery Jazmin Gonzalez Martinez, who works with Medrano as an outreach specialist, said the current political climate has made it more difficult to get people to sign up.

You try to convince people that it won’t affect them, but they’re so scared that they can’t hear it

Jennery Jazmin Gonzalez Martinez

“You try to convince people that it won’t affect them, but they’re so scared that they can’t hear it.” Gonzalez said. Recently, she met a family that planned to disenroll their child from medical benefits out of caution.

Gonzalez and other advocates on the ground attribute much of the confusion to fast-moving changes to an already byzantine system. But they also point to attorneys who, either out of an abundance of caution, or because they themselves don’t understand the rules, have advised clients to drop benefit applications so it doesn’t affect their immigration cases.

Johnathan Garcia, an immigration attorney with Legal Aid Society of San Mateo county, said he often meets people who have been misinformed by attorneys who may not specialize or have proper understanding of immigration law.

“Usually clients don’t approach with a question. It’s more like, ‘I’m afraid, and I’m getting off [public benefits],’” Garcia said.

“It’s been tough to give very clear guidance because we haven’t seen how this is going to be applied. It’s hard to say how this is actually going to impact people until we see it in practice,” Garcia said.

Hungry children

Advocates say the potential impact on families and communities can hardly be overstated in California, home to 3.3 million green card holders, more than anywhere else in the country. More than a quarter of the 9.7 million US citizen children in California have at least one parent who isn’t a citizen.

“California has more immigrants than any other state – and hence much at stake,” reads a brief on the potential impact of the public charge rule, done by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Measurable data showing disenrollment in public benefit programs is hard to come by.

But in nearby Santa Clara county, CalMatters reported, the number of households getting food stamps, in families where at least one members was not a citizen, decreased by 20% from October 2018 – when the proposed rule changes were first announced – to May 2019. Meanwhile food stamp enrollment in citizen households remained consistent.

The news of the new rules stirred concerns among California’s biggest school districts, with school officials from Los Angeles to San Francisco publishing information to help dissuade parents from disenrolling children from the subsidized lunches all low-income students qualify for, regardless of immigration status.

“The policy will make Los Angeles county children hungrier, less healthy and more likely to become homeless,” said Debra Duardo, the Los Angeles county superintendent of schools, in a statement to EdSource.

But Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, is unable to say whether parental concerns were appearing in data.

A request for public records from Los Angeles Unified on how many families have disenrolled from the free lunch program, as well as how many students may qualify for free lunch but are not receiving it, turned up no information.

“It’s hard to articulate how much of an impact this is having,” said Almas Sayeed, deputy director of programs at the California Immigrant Policy Center, adding that safety systems typically don’t disaggregate data by immigration status.

“Advocates are reluctant to say how many people are disenrolling [from benefits] out of fear it would sort of cement the trend. But [immigrants] are scared. They’re going to disenroll. It’s going to happen,” she said.

Studies of the impacts of 1996 welfare reform may offer clues as to how the new changes will play out.

Drawing from the results of the studies, experts from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research estimated that 15-35% of immigrants may disenroll from public benefits even when qualified due to confusion and fear.

If the same numbers held true in California, 860,000 recipients of CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program, could be affected by the chilling effect, at a loss to the state of up to $488m in federal funding, depending on how many disenroll.

Even greater would be the impact on the Medi-Cal program, free or low-cost health care coverage for children and families with low income. UCLA’s health policy research team estimates the change could affect 2.1m people, at a loss of up to $1.19bn a year in federal funding.

For Sayeed of the California Immigrant Policy Center, aside from the sweeping impact the reforms may have, at stake is a fundamental question about opportunity and nationhood.

“At the heart of this debate is who belongs and who gets to build and participate in the American dream,” she said.

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