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Big Oil’s Bad, Bad Day

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In what may be the most cataclysmic day so far for the traditional fossil-fuel industry, a remarkable set of shareholder votes and court rulings have scrambled the future of three of the world’s largest oil companies. On Wednesday, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to dramatically cut its emissions over the next decade—a mandate it can likely only meet by dramatically changing its business model. A few hours later, sixty-one per cent of shareholders at Chevron voted, over management objections, to demand that the company cut so-called Scope 3 emissions, which include emissions caused by its customers burning its products. Oil companies are willing to address the emissions that come from their operations, but, as Reuters pointed out, the support for the cuts “shows growing investor frustration with companies, which they believe are not doing enough to tackle climate change.” The most powerful proof of such frustration came shortly afterward, as ExxonMobil officials announced that shareholders had (over the company’s strenuous opposition) elected two dissident candidates to the company’s board, both of whom pledge to push for climate action.

The action at ExxonMobil’s shareholder meeting was fascinating: the company, which regularly used to make the list of most-admired companies, had been pulling out all stops to defeat the slate of dissident candidates, which was put forward by Engine No. 1, a tiny activist fund based in San Francisco that owns just 0.02 per cent of the company’s stock, but has insisted that Exxon needs a better answer to the question of how to meet the climate challenge. Exxon has simply insisted on doubling down: its current plan actually calls for increasing oil and gas production in Guyana and the Permian Basin this decade, even though the International Energy Agency last week called for an end to new development of fossil fuels. Observers at the meeting described a long adjournment midmeeting, and meandering answers to questions from the floor, perhaps as an effort to buy time to persuade more shareholders to go the company’s way. But the effort failed. Notably, efforts by activists to push big investors appear to have paid off: according to sources, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, backed three of the dissident candidates for the Exxon board.

The decision by the Dutch court, which Shell has already said it expects to appeal, is at least as remarkable. Drawing, in part, on European human-rights laws, it finds that, though Shell has begun to make changes in its business plans, they are not moving fast enough to fall in line with the demands of science, and that it must more than double the pace of its planned emissions cuts. “The court understands that the consequences could be big for Shell,” Jeannette Honée, a spokeswoman for the court, said in a video about the ruling. “But the court believes that the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests.” Honée continued, “Severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life. And the court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights.”

No one knows quite how the ruling, if it stands, will play out. Shell is based in the Netherlands, but it has operations around the world. The ruling, though, is the firmest official pronouncement yet about what a commitment to climate science requires. The forty-five-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2019 levels that the court ordered is very close to what, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) said would be required to keep us on a pathway that might limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The court gently dismissed Shell’s attempts to evade the science: the company, the judges wrote, believes that “too little attention is paid to adaptation strategies, such as air conditioning, which may contribute to reducing risks associated with hot spells, and to water and coastal management to counter the sea level rise caused by global warming. These adaptation strategies reveal that measures can be taken to combat the consequences of climate change, which may in result reduce the risks. However, these strategies do not alter the fact that climate change due to CO2 emissions has serious and irreversible consequences.”

Instead, it’s clear that the arguments that many have been making for a decade have sunk in at the highest levels: there is no actual way to evade the inexorable mathematics of climate change. If you want to keep the temperature low enough that civilization will survive, you have to keep coal and oil and gas in the ground. That sounded radical a decade ago. Now it sounds like the law.

Passing the Mic

The mayors of Miami-Dade County, Florida; Athens, Greece; and Freetown, Sierra Leone, with funding from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, have each committed to appointing chief heat officers in their cities and establishing Heat Health Task Forces to dedicate resources to manage mounting heat risks that climate change is producing. Jane Gilbert, who has lived in Miami for a quarter century and served as the director of the city’s resilience programs, has taken on a new role there as the city’s chief heat officer. (Our interview has been edited.)

A reason that Americans like coming to Miami is that it’s hot, but is there too much of a good thing? Does it feel different than it did when you first moved here, twenty-six years ago?

People love visiting Miami for our beaches, art, culture, and night life, and for our Miami Heat (pun intended). However, extreme heat can be quite dangerous, especially for outdoor workers, pedestrians, seniors, and people who can’t afford the increasing costs of A.C. The combination of temperature and humidity during Miami summers results in many days where our heat index reaches dangerous levels. I’ve definitely felt the difference since I moved here, and there’s data to back this up. Research shows that Miami experiences twenty-seven more days that reach at least ninety degrees Fahrenheit in a year than it did in 1995. We’re also expected to have a dramatic increase in the number of days with a heat index of a hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit or higher, over the next thirty years. Miami’s residents and visitors expect it to be warm, but, as temperatures rise, they need to know about the heat-health dangers, and the city needs to be able to protect them. We don’t have all of the resources or technical expertise to do it ourselves. So, when we were approached by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, the group that leads the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, about championing heat action, Miami-Dade County’s mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, jumped at the idea to bring in other global mayors to help brand #HeatSeason (like hurricane season). Together, we will share and replicate the best ways to protect people and their jobs from heat.

How does excess heat interact with other climate problems the city faces—rising sea levels, vulnerability to hurricanes, and so on?

The biggest risk to human lives is having a hurricane followed by a heat wave. Miami has always been vulnerable to hurricanes, but climate change seems to be increasing the intensity of those storms. Hurricanes most often occur in our late summer months, and often result in major and extended power outages. After Hurricane Irma, in 2017, twelve people died of heat-related causes in a nursing home in Broward County, just north of us. Since then, all nursing homes are required to have backup power with the capacity to keep a space cool for at least ninety-six hours in the event of a power outage. Now we need to make sure other vulnerable populations have access to a place to cool off after a storm. Moreover, climate-change impacts, and especially heat risks, are deeply intertwined with social and economic inequalities. Identifying and adopting heat-risk reduction policies and solutions must be informed by the community as well as the science.

Are there some easy first steps to cool a city down a little? What can you do with pavement? How do you make shade?

Plant trees! Tree-shaded surfaces can be as much as thirty-five or forty degrees cooler than surfaces in open sun. Trees can also reduce utility costs, absorb stormwater, and remove pollution and carbon from the atmosphere. We’ve set an ambitious goal of reaching a thirty-per-cent tree canopy countywide by 2030, and prioritizing those neighborhoods with the least shade. Traditional pavements absorb lots of sunlight and can significantly heat up our urban areas. The City of Miami has required cool roofs and pavements in its zoning code for ten years. Miami Beach is now testing some new cool pavements. The evidence that such interventions work exists, but there is much education to be done to make sure the money we spend on rebuilding infrastructure, especially after COVID-19, is heat-risk-informed.

Climate School

Here’s a part of the energy story that’s going to keep developing: Michael Klare, the emeritus professor of peace and security studies based at Hampshire College, argues at the Web site TomDispatch that, if we’re not careful, the scramble for the cobalt, lithium, and rare-earth minerals necessary for storage batteries and wind turbines could turn into geopolitical combat not unlike the long battles over oil. He points out that China is a major producer and processor: “In truth, there’s little choice but for Washington and Beijing to collaborate with each other and so many other countries in accelerating the green energy transition,” he writes. Meanwhile, the Financial Times has been tracking claims that China has been using forced labor to produce solar panels: their latest reporting follows a Potemkinish tour of a Chinese plant. And last week, John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said that the Biden Administration is considering sanctions on Chinese solar panels. As I pointed out in April, the balancing act between quickly weaning the world off fossil fuels—whose emissions, even without climate change, accounted for a fifth of the world’s deaths in 2018—and safeguarding human rights is exquisitely hard.

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Sunday Reading: Commemorating Juneteenth

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Juneteenth, the commemoration of emancipation, is a moment of reflection for this country. Last year, the Harvard professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed published a piece in The New Yorker about her childhood in Texas and the meaning of the holiday for her family and community. Juneteenth and the Fourth of July were inextricably linked during those years, she notes, in part because the Declaration of Independence carried a promise yet to be fulfilled for Black Americans. “I also did not know, as a child,” she writes, “how intensely African-Americans had fought to keep alive the memory of Juneteenth—to commemorate our ancestors’ struggles and their hopes, and to link them to our own.”

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This week, as we prepare to honor the holiday and those sacrifices, on June 19th, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about racial injustice and the abiding legacy of slavery. In “The Prophecies of George Floyd,” Michael Eric Dyson explores how Floyd’s killing sparked some of the largest protests in American history, and considers the inescapable threat of violence by police officers against Black Americans. In “The Long War Against Slavery,” Casey Cep writes about the protracted struggle of abolitionists and civil-rights activists across the country. In “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain,” Edwidge Danticat reflects on the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, and asks whether the nation will ever confront the devastating repercussions of white supremacy. (“Black bodies are increasingly becoming battlefields upon which horrors are routinely executed, each one so close to the last that we barely have the time to fully grieve and mourn.”) Finally, in “The Matter of Black Lives,” from 2016, Jelani Cobb profiles Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and examines the powerful appeal of the movement that is helping to change America.

—David Remnick


A family at a Juneteenth celebration

A mural of George Floyd with candles, flowers, and protest signs.

An illustration of Tacky's Revolt

A painting from Jacob Lawrence's “Migration Series”

Alicia Garza
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Running: A Success Story

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Proust and the Sex Rats

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Many people have asked me, since the publication of my long review of new books on Proust, about what seemed a perhaps too-casual reference to Proust’s paraphilia—a fancy but fashionable word for a sexual fetish—somehow involving the use, or rather abuse, of caged rats. I had danced past this quickly in the essay, not out of delicacy but out of an unwillingness to linger too long on a controversial point in the Proust biographical literature, and also because to go into it in depth would have required not merely a parenthesis but something more like a relentless footnote, or what used to be called, in the heyday of glossy magazines, a sidebar. Herewith though, in response, is that sidebar, with an attempt to make sense of the anecdote, true or false.

The story of Proust and the sex rats comes in several distinct versions, in itself a marker either of multiple confirmation or of the processes of fable-making. It seems to have made its first public appearance, at least in the English-speaking world, in George Painter’s once “definitive” biography. It occurs in this form: “The wretched creatures were pierced with hatpins or beaten with sticks, while Proust looked on,” according to André Gide, because of his “desire to conjoin the most disparate sensations and emotions for the purposes of orgasm.” Painter sources the story to several different, though not necessarily independent, informants, including, in addition to Gide, the writer Maurice Sachs, who was said to have heard it from Albert Le Cuziat, the owner of a brothel Proust was known to frequent.

In the newer biography by William C. Carter, and then in greater detail in Carter’s 2006 book, “Proust in Love,” the story is repeated in more gruesome form, starting again with Proust in a brothel: “If Proust failed to achieve orgasm [from gazing at a male sex worker] ‘he would make a gesture for me to leave’ and Albert would bring in two cages,’ each of which contained a famished rat. Le Cuziat would set the cages together and open the door. The two starving beasts would attack each other, making piercing squeaks as they clawed and bit each other, a spectacle that allowed Proust to achieve orgasm.”

This version of the story is sourced to Henri Bonnet’s 1985 volume, “Les amours et la sexualité de Marcel Proust,” in which it is said to be reaffirmed by an anonymous prostitute—the quoted speaker in the passage—whose memories were recorded by the writer Marcel Jouhandeau. The, uh, tale, is further confirmed by Carter with an item in Jean Cocteau’s diaries—though Cocteau’s version, in turn, is complicated by an accompanying and not terribly clear account that Proust also somehow, within this ritual, profaned a photograph of his mother.

The story then seems to have entered the cultural mainstream when it was significantly amplified in two improbable places—stranger bedfellows in the dissemination of literary gossip are hard to imagine. The first is Nabokov’s immense, bizarre 1969 novel, “Ada, or Ardor,” in which, among much other material, there is a reference to Proust decapitating rats: “crusty Proust who liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping”—the decapitation being a neat, Nabokovian twist not previously encountered in the literature.

Meanwhile, in Albert Goldman’s best-selling, and once notorious, 1981 biography of Elvis Presley, the story occurs again, as a thing widely known, in the course of Goldman’s discussion of Elvis’s paraphilia—reported presumably by Elvis’s own André Gide, his assistant Lamar Fike, who seems to have been Goldman’s informant on Elvis’s erotic life—which allegedly tended toward movies showing “cat fights,” i.e., half-dressed women wrestling. Goldman—a former professor at Columbia, whose descent into gossipy pop bios should not detract from the intelligence or the excellence of his biography of Lenny Bruce—used the Proust story to make the point that “mama’s boys,” as they were then known (a class that included both Proust and Elvis), might work out their ambivalent feelings about their beloved mothers in sexual play-acting. Proust’s rats were an oddly recherché literary reference for a mass-market pop biography—but that, of course, was rather the point.

From this spillover, the story can be found everywhere, with variants. So, to the core issue: Is it true? As with so many stories of the kind, it is hard to be certain. In doing the spadework a decade ago on the controversy about whether Edwin Stanton said, at Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels,” I followed the trail of this widely circulated and poorly sourced story back to a single disseminating source—and a very dubious one, Otto Eisenschiml, a conspiracy theorist. (He believed that Stanton had conspired to have Lincoln killed.)

The source of the Proust story seems as specific, and to be primarily Gide, along with the prostitute whom Jouhandeau quotes (discounting Cocteau’s reference, perhaps unfairly but cautiously, as likely derivative of Gide). Gide certainly knew Proust, but he also had reasons to gossip maliciously about a writer whom he had, at first, patronized from a height and ignored—and then had to watch become more revered than he himself had been. And Gide presumably had a reason to bring Proust into his own orbit of ostentatious sexual experimentation, involving what we would now characterize as sex tourism and open pedophilia. (Cocteau’s diary, again, is thirty years after Proust’s death, and the anonymous prostitute’s recollection, secondhand, is not by itself definitive.)

And, then, though the fighting rats do not sound like the kind of thing one just makes up, Proust’s supposed paraphilia does seem suspiciously singular, inasmuch as it is not one that, at least to the perhaps too innocent-minded search of this writer, has any other participants. (The famous fetishes, even though odd, tend to be surprisingly widespread; Elvis had no trouble getting movies devoted to his predilection.) There are certainly sexual fetishes horribly associated with animal torture—Google, or rather, don’t, “crush videos.” But that such things exist now does not, of course, prove that they did then, and they tend now, apparently, to be associated with highly theatricalized bondage rituals.

It seems unlikely that the rat scene could quite have taken place as described. Who would keep starved rats on the premises in case a client so disposed came in? (Even a favored one, as Proust presumably would have been.) Who cared for the rats while waiting for Proust, or some other rat fetishist, to show up? Though finding rats in Paris then was no more difficult than it is now, the idea of caging fierce and starving rats for an indefinite period in anticipation of a client with this brutal taste seems improbable. The improbability of the enterprise does not make it impossible, of course—but it does remind one of how easily we suspend normal skepticism about events when they touch on venomous gossip about the well known. (And, as Benjamin Taylor suggests in his Proust book, one’s sympathies must extend first to the rats who would surely have wanted to be excluded from this narrative.)

One need hardly mention here—yet one will—the once famous and not entirely dissimilar rumor that had a movie star going to a Los Angeles hospital to have a gerbil removed from his anatomy, where it had been lodged for erotic pleasure. The inherent absurdity of this story did not keep it from becoming surprisingly widespread and, if not universally credited, then, at least, as the Web site Snopes tells us, leading “countless doctors and nurses [to] claim to have participated in, been on hand during, or heard from a reliable colleague about, the procedure.” Not only is the story false but the entire “practice” of gerbil stuffing seems wholly invented, a deliberate attempt to suggest the most improbable possible activity in order to shock and titillate readers. Indeed, the rodent-sex nexus is itself a telltale sign of fabrication: What’s the most shocking thing you can imagine someone doing? Make sure it includes a hamster.

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