Game designer at Naughty Dog, software engineer, Canadian abroad
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Out of the shadows...

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For those wondering what I've been up to for the past while, here's the news; a year or so ago I moved back to Montreal, and have been working on an upcoming Assassin's Creed game. Assassin's Creed: Codename Hexe was...
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20 days ago
Can’t wait to see what Clint and team are up to.
Santa Monica, California
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Austin is the capital and fourth-most populous city of Texas, with just under on...

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Austin is the capital and fourth-most populous city of Texas, with just under one million inhabitants. It has been one of the fastest growing cities in the USA since 2010 and is experiencing a skyscraper boom, with recent construction on new office, hotel and residential buildings. This Overview focuses on Downtown Austin, along the Colorado River, with the Texas State Capitol Building at center.

30.270565°, -97.738784°

Source imagery: Nearmap

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21 days ago
I lived here for a couple of years, a fun lively city.
Santa Monica, California
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Accessibility for The Last of Us Part I

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The Last of Us Part I: Joel crouched behind cover with visible threat indicator UI elements.

Back in 2020, I wrote about co-heading the accessibility effort on The Last of Us Part II and the incredible reaction to our expansive set of features. Later that year we were also honoured to receive the inaugural “Innovation in Accessibility” award at The Game Awards. In the years since, we’ve seen awareness and support grow for accessibility across the games industry, and many new games that have pushed the frontiers in novel and exciting ways.

More recently, I had the incredible opportunity to step into the role of game director on The Last of Us Part I remake for PS5. While our goal was to stay faithful to the original in terms of story and core mechanics, we had a chance to integrate a decade of technology and craft improvements to modernize the gameplay. This of course included accessibility.

In addition to porting over options from Part II, we developed a handful of new features for the remake. The most ambitious was providing descriptive audio for the cinematics. These were developed in partnership with Descriptive Video Works, who brought professional expertise from the world of film and television. We also developed a new DualSense controller feature that plays spoken dialogue as haptic vibrations, with the goal of conveying the cadence and emphasis of the actor’s performance without audio.

I was thrilled to be able to showcase the accessibility features in the game’s marketing. We released an accessibility feature highlight trailer, as well as Naughty Dog’s first audio-described story trailer. I also had the opportunity to discuss these features (and accessible design more generally) in interviews with Eurogamer, Fanbyte, and The Inverse. The Washington Post also featured a great story about players with disabilities who were excited to experience the original game without barriers that might have excluded them.

Screenshot of the TLOU2 accessibility options in Japanese.

Finally, I had the unique opportunity to discuss accessibility with Den Fami Nico Gamer, one of the premier video game magazines in Japan. It was published alongside an interview with Hiromi Wakai about the accessibility features built into the PS5 OS.

For the benefit of non-Japanese speakers, I have provided my full original responses in English below, since automated web translation loses a lot of the details and jargon. (The translations of the questions were provided by Sony PR, and I have lightly edited them for clarity.)

Could you tell me reasons why you decided to support accessibility in your games? How do you decide which titles to support and which not to?

Accessibility welcomes players who wouldn’t otherwise get to play. While we specifically aim to support players with disabilities, the broader truth is that accessibility is good universal design for everyone. For example, subtitles are useful for deaf players, but I use subtitles if I’m playing games late at night while my daughter is sleeping. If I break my arm, I might temporarily need to use motor accessibility features while it’s in a cast.

Disability is extremely common (1 in 20 adults in Japan are considered to have some type of disability), and for all of us it is an inevitable part of our own mortality. Our vision, hearing, and motor coordination are all affected by aging. If the generation that grew up with video games wants to continue playing them into their old age, games will need to serve their changing needs.

We strive to support accessibility for all of our titles, and to continuously develop new technology that we can carry over to future games.

Before you start development, what did you start with and what did you research?

There are many excellent free resources that outline the most common issues and best practices for inclusive design. For example, the Access Design Patterns framework gives names to specific high-level design principles. “Second Channel” suggests that a visual cue in a game should be matched with an audio cue, and vice versa. “Clear Text” means providing options to improve legibility through colour, size, and contrast.

With these principles in mind, we begin designing and prototyping new features that we think would be useful. While most developers on the team are able-bodied, we can imagine playing the game without sound, without visuals, or only pressing one button at a time. However, we make sure to always invite players with disabilities to come playtest the game, provide feedback, and validate our feature ideas.

Development may cost higher and take more time to support accessibility. How did you persuade and secure the publisher with this in mind? Does the request come from the publisher side asking to support accessibility?

When we look at the big picture, the development cost of supporting these features is very small compared to the overall game production. The benefit is that it allows us to expand the audience for our games, bringing in new players who might have otherwise been excluded. Being able to modify settings to suit their needs allows all players to experience the gameplay more comfortably, without cumbersome barriers getting in the way.

In software and video games, features tend to be cheaper and easier to develop if you plan for them early in production. By being proactive about accessibility considerations, we ensure that they’re a natural and integrated part of the development plan, not something we’re having to scramble for at the end.

We are very thankful to have the full support of the studio leadership at Naughty Dog, and also from our publisher SIE. They recognize the importance of creating games that welcome players with many different needs and abilities.

I think it is very tough to decide how far to support [accessibility]. What did you do when you had to decide to limit some of the support? It would be great to ask about the thought process behind it.

When we started development for The Last of Us Part II, the team decided to pursue four big accessibility goals based on technical feasibility and player feedback from previous games. The first was to offer fully customizable controls through button remappings. The second was to make our user interface (UI) and HUD elements dynamically scalable to larger sizes. The third was to provide a high contrast render mode that highlighted important visual elements for players with low vision.

Our last big goal was the most challenging and ambitious: we wanted players who are totally blind to be able to complete the game. We had recently heard a talk by accessibility consultant and blind gamer Brandon Cole, and he amazed us by showing how he was able to play games like Killer Instinct and Resident Evil 6 entirely through sound. We wanted players like him to be able to play our game too.

Because we aligned on these goals early on, it provided boundaries that safeguarded us from continuously adding new features. If we had a new exciting accessibility idea that didn’t match these goals, we could put it aside for consideration on a future game. We’ll keep striving to reach further with each game that we create.

Generally speaking, I think one of the selling points of PlayStation is the beauty of graphics. I think it is one of the most expensive parts of game development. Supporting [blind or low vision] users would mean to cut back on that strongest selling point, were there any dilemmas or struggles on those decisions? Were there any points of innovations or difficulties when trading off the graphical beauty for accessibility?

We take great pride in our visual art, so developing a new high contrast render mode that flattened and simplified all those finely-crafted details wasn’t something we took on lightly. The team made great efforts to ensure that the final result, while primarily functional, was still aesthetically pleasing and up to Naughty Dog’s artistic standards.

There are also many aspects of our games that can be appreciated without sight. We have a world-class sound team, and The Last of Us Part II won several awards for its audio design and music. Players also enjoy the combat challenge; blind gamers have beaten the game on the hardest difficulties. Of course, most players come to our games for the storytelling, which is still a powerful and moving experience with the voice acting alone.

When developing games, I think it’s important to have [people with several types of disabilities] to actually try out the accessibility features. Can you describe the framework you set up for the process?

There is a saying in the disability community: “nothing about us without us”. Throughout development, we periodically invite accessibility consultants to playtest the game. They provide critical feedback on our features and prototypes, letting us know what is working well and what needs further refinement. They also identify barriers we may have missed, and help us brainstorm new ideas to address them.

Were there any skills or requirements for the [accessibility consultants]? [Do they require] special school / vocational training school in order for them to supervise accessibility features in games?

Some accessibility consultants come from a background in user experience (UX) or human–computer interaction (HCI) design. They bring in knowledge of best practices from outside the games industry, such as subtitle guidelines from the BBC or the screen reader technology on the iPhone.

Consultants also bring in a wealth of communal knowledge from gamers with disabilities. If we’re discussing a particular feature, they can give us examples of good (and bad) implementations in other games, or share feedback they’ve heard within the community.

I hope to continue to see accessibility supported in games and hope to see more in the future. What were the positives / negatives that resulted from supporting accessibility?

We were incredibly excited by the positive reception from the breadth of accessibility features in The Last of Us Part II. We were surprised when the coverage even spread to major non-gaming publications, such as NPR and USA Today. We were also incredibly honoured to receive the inaugural award for “Innovation in Accessibility” at the Game Awards. We hope that this helps promote awareness across the games industry of the importance of accessibility.

More importantly, we received so many wonderful emails and letters from players. They said how excited they were to share the experience with loved ones. They recounted how they’d triumphed over boss battles without requiring able-bodied assistance. Nothing makes me prouder as a game developer than hearing these incredible stories.

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26 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Reprint: In Memory of My Grandmother

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(I originally wrote this essay in 2016 for my old newsletter here, and made it public in 2019 after she passed away so some people may have seen it before. I’m including it here to keep it all in one place. The pandemic, tragically, had a lot of “debate” about the value of elderly life. My grandmother was very sober about aging—”when it’s my time, it’s my time”, she always said. But her last decade into her nineties was full of love and life, and I’m grateful for having the chance to share it with her.)

In Memory of my Grandmother: "Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories"

by zeynep tufekci

My beloved grandmother passed away last night, peacefully in her sleep. She had a stroke a few years ago and spent the last three years happy, but without being able to form significant new memories. … She was a remarkable woman, and changed so many lives besides mine. I will always hold her memory in my heart, and her example as one to live up to. -zeynep 5/5/2019  

Lessons from my Grandmother: Educate Your Girls; Cherish Your Good Memories.

By Zeynep Tufekci written on 11/17/2016

I started writing this, my first newsletter, by my grandmother’s bedside, when I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey last week to visit her after she suffered from a stroke. She’s now 94, and she was born the very month the Republic of Turkey was declared, in 1923. Republic day (October 29th) is a national holiday in Turkey, as well as the day we celebrate my grandmother’s birthday since we don’t know the exact date.

This year feels like a turning point for both.

Turkey’s been in the news a lot lately. A bloody coup, barely averted. The state of journalism. Arrests. Internet shutdowns. Explosions. It’s also very difficult for me to truly follow and understand the news from Turkey in detail anymore—neither mass media nor social media seem reliable in conveying what’s truly going on.

I also cannot speak to my grandmother about her life stories anymore. The stroke in left temporal lobe has deeply affected her memory, and much is lost. She recognized me though, and immediately wanted to feed me—her deepest instinct, probably.

I told her that my forthcoming book—which includes parts of the story of her miraculous journey to get an education that I’m about to tell—was dedicated to her, and she was thrilled and emotional. She forgot about it in about five minutes. So I told her again, and she was just as thrilled and emotional.  Then she forgot about it again, and I told her again. You got it: she was thrilled.

So we had a few days together last week, her asking me if I had enough to eat every five minutes, and me telling her that I dedicated my book to her every five minutes. It was difficult, and it was full of grief for me. But it was also joyful. She was not sad at all.

My grandmother repeatedly prayed in gratitude to three people in her life: Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, her elementary school teacher who made her education possible, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. I recounted her semi-miraculous story in my (forthcoming) book on networked social movements:

When my grandmother was about 13 years old and living in a small town near Mediterranean coast in Turkey, she won a scholarship to the most prestigious boarding school in Istanbul. Just two years earlier she had been told her formal education was over, after completing fifth grade. As far as her family was concerned, that was more than enough education for a girl. It was time for marriage, not geometry or history.
 My grandmother didn’t know her exact birth date. Her mother had said she was born just as the grapes were being harvested and pressed into molasses in preparation for the upcoming winter, and just as word of the proclamation of the new Republic of Turkey reached her town. That would put her birthday in the fall of 1923, as the world struggled to emerge from the ruins of World War I. It was also a time of transition and change for Turkey, for her family, and for her. The new central government, born from the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, was intent on modernizing the country and emulating European systems. They made a push for spreading schools and standardized education. Teachers were appointed around the country, even to remote provinces. One of those teachers remembered a bright female pupil who had been yanked from school, and secretly entered her into a nation-wide scholarship exam to find and educate gifted girls.“And then, my name appeared in a newspaper,” my grandmother said. She told me the story often, tearing up each time.In a small miracle and a testament to the unsettled nature of the era, my grandmother’s teacher prevailed over her family, and she boarded a train to the faraway city of Istanbul to attend an elite school. [The teacher had also signed her documents, promising to pay all her educational costs were she to fail. In effect, the teacher had stepped up in lieu of a parent, at great financial risk to himself. My grandma’s family tried to prevent her from leaving, and her older brother almost blocked her path—an act he later apologized for many times. But the teacher persevered and succeeded—a dramatic act, changing someone’s life forever.]

My grandmother was joined by dozens of bright girls from around the country who had made similar, miraculous for the time, journeys. They all got a superb education. After she got her high school degree, my grandmother became a teacher: marrying a little too quickly as my grandfather pursued her aggressively, and she relented. She sometimes wondered what else she could have done. But she loved being an elementary school teacher.
My grandmother wasn’t just a great teacher in the formal classroom—her students always showed remarkable improvement in the years they had her—but she also basically became everyone’s teacher. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, let alone college. Practically every child, grandchild, nephew and niece after her ended up going to college and beyond, to a large degree because of her. She insisted that everyone go to school. She taught them how to navigate exams, how to pick majors, how to study, how to apply to schools and scholarships. When parents were reluctant to support their children in their education, my grandmother stepped in, using her authority as the elder of the family to overrule them. It was a delicious subversion of hierarchy—the youngest teaming up with the oldest to overrule the reluctant middle. If the parents wouldn’t pay for the children’s school, she would. If they needed a place to stay, she’d take them in.
This wasn’t limited to family. She informally “adopted” countless children—her own students, neighbors, distant relatives—and tutored them, guided them, paid for their tuition and school supplies. She convinced many parents to let girls continue on to high school or college.

When girls get married in Turkey, they are often gifted bracelets made of gold—to be used in emergencies or when savings are needed. My grandmother always said that education was the most important pair of “golden bracelets” that girls needed. “Get your golden bracelets” she would say all the girls she encountered, telling them that in a world dominated by men, women needed to make sure they could make a living if need be. To escape an abusive marriage. To support one’s own children. To deal with an illness. To be able to live a life on one’s own terms.

This is why educating girls is such strong leverage for social change: educated girls can grow into strong women who bring along and lead their families for generations, and can also shield and nurture their children and others as they can exercise choices. So my grandmother prayed to Ataturk and her teacher, the two people she believed made all this possible for her.

All three of her grandchildren moved abroad, something my grandmother greatly supported even as it caused her a lot of longing. She herself had worked for a telephone operator for a few years, and now the telephone became her most cherished possession, connecting her to us. She put her cellphone in a little pouch, and wore it as a necklace. In 2012, I had traveled to Kenya and visited some rural areas where I encountered elderly women with the same set-up: cell phones as necklaces. I asked one: “is this for your grandchildren?” She grinned. It was the same story: her grandchildren had migrated away searching a better life. She wanted them to go, but didn’t want to lose them. The telephone connected them.
 After most phone conversations—which we had often, even as her memory failed—my grandmother would say, “May [Alexander Graham] Bell rest in peace. May he be accepted to the best corner of heaven. May his soul be blessed”, and so on. At first, she hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone much, thinking it was expensive. I finally convinced her how cheap it had become, and she took to it, chatting with me at length. She was enormously grateful, and she had a name to thank for all this: so Bell got all the blessings.

 But we didn’t just talk on the phone, of course. In 2004, when I was finally graduating with my doctorate, I wanted to skip the ceremony—I had skipped every graduation ceremony before that. One friend said “this one is not for you; it’s for everyone who helped you along the way.” The phrase struck me hard it was the truest thing I had heard.  I arranged for her to attend my dissertation defense as well as the graduation. I was nervous that it would be hard for her. I met her at the plane’s gate. She walked out of the jet bridge, chatting—somehow, in her broken English—with the cabin crew. She had apparently invited all of them to dinner. After educating people, she most loved feeding them.

By the time a Ph.D. student is allowed to defend, it is mostly understood that she should be able to pass, but the “oral examination” part is not just a rubber-stamp. It is a multiple- hour process in which the committee members grill the student. My defense was also scheduled right at lunch time. I didn’t really need to read the research to know that leaving your interrogators hungry was not the best idea.

My grandmother, now staying with me in the United States, had been itching to be useful. I asked her to cook some Turkish finger-food for my committee to eat during the defense. Not only would they not be hungry as they listened to my presentation of my dissertation, they would be eating afterwards. More chewing, less questioning.

So my grandmother sat through my defense which lasted maybe three hours or so, the many types of food she cooked on the table. She didn’t understand anything I was saying--she spoke only a few words of English. But she didn’t seem bored at all. A lot had happened along the way for her and for me to get here.

If it sounds like I’m drawing a picture of an ideal family—a lovely grandmother, a granddaughter who gets an education—the truth is far from it. It’s exactly because things went so wrong that my grandmother’s “golden bracelets” were so important.

My mother had been a non-functional alcoholic, and my father abandoned me and my brother to our alcoholic mother when we were young teens. Consequently, I was borderline to actual homeless throughout much of my teen years. It was a complicated crisis, and to allow my mother to have a house to live, my grandmother left hers to my mother, and moved into an assisted living facility. Hence, I could not live with my grandmother anymore, nor could I really live with my mother. It was a tough time, and grandma helped me immensely as I managed to ground myself, finding a job as a computer programmer and going on from there. Without her ability to help me and my brother through, we may never have made it out. My mother eventually died from her alcoholism. To great trauma to my grandmother, she was the one who found her daughter’s lifeless body. “I would not wish this upon the worst person in the world”, she said of her pain.

Addiction is a curse from hell, and I still have not fully grasped what happened. Neither has my grandmother. We just say she was ill with a fever we don’t understand. My mother struggled; she quit multiple times but always succumbed again. We watched her spiral down, and then we lost her. My mother saw me start my PhD, but didn’t make it to see me graduate.

My grandmother sat through my defense with an intense look on her face, beaming when anyone ate any of their food. I got asked fairly few questions, which I credit to her food.

After a defense, the standard procedure is to invite the doctoral candidate to step out and for the committee members to confer among each other whether she passed or not. The candidate is then invited back in, and the decision is announced. So I concluded my defense, the questioning ended, and we all stepped out.
The chair of my committee called us back, smiling, nodding approvingly. I smiled, too, and braced myself to accept the congratulations. He indeed said “congratulations”, but not to me. The whole committee turned to my grandmother, first congratulating her, and then standing up and applauding her. I was stunned: I had not set this up. I wish I could have been so smart and thoughtful to set it up. I had mentioned her story to a few people. To their credit, my committee had recognized the hero in the room. My grandmother, too, was stunned but she grasped that she was being recognized. Everyone went and hugged her as she wept.

For the rest of her life, my grandmother told this story to pretty much everyone she met. When I visited her at the assisted living facility for the next decade—where she loved living as it gave her independence—even the janitors would greet me as the granddaughter who had gone to the United States to get a doctorate, and whose committee had applauded my grandmother. She told this story to people she sat next to in the ferry; she told this to anyone who asked her about her life. I never tired of it; it was the only context in which being called a “doctor” meant something personal. I never use the title otherwise, except to joke in planes when they ask if there is a doctor on board. (“Not unless you need a literature review in aisle three.”)

I didn’t know what I would find last week, after her stroke. It was not as bad as I had feared, but she had clearly lost a lot of her stories. She appeared to have forgotten my grandfather’s death. She’d ask where he was, and we’d say “oh, soccer match”—as my grandfather would often go to soccer matches—and she’d say “oh, okay.” It was sad, but it felt merciful.

I wasn’t as ready, though, when she asked where my mother was, apparently also forgotten her death. “She’s out shopping”, I stuttered. “Oh, okay”, my grandmother said, unperturbed.

She had forgotten the worst event of her life.

We chatted mostly about lighthearted topics, since her past was mostly gone. We chatted about her room, and how she liked her pillows. She wanted one more to be able to sit upright better, so I got her one. True to form, she worried when I left to fetch a pillow. She was always fine with me globetrotting, but if I were visiting her, she didn’t want me out of her sight. It was her quirk. We chatted about my brother, even arranged a video call with him, to my grandmother’s delight.

I brought up the story of my doctoral dissertation defense. I expected she would have forgotten it, too—if my mother’s death was forgotten, I assumed everything else must be gone, too.

Do you remember, I said, how you traveled to my defense, and how you cooked food, and how everyone loved eating it, and how everyone stood up and applauded you.

“And how I cried”, she responded, mimicking tears falling down her face with her fingers. She smiled at me, and said it had been wonderful. There was no mistaking it, somehow, that memory had survived.

Her room at the assisted living facility was just as I had seen it for the past few decades: pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, adorned the walls. There were also lots of pictures of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. I saw her cell phone in its necklace pouch, hanging on the wall. 

I also found lots of notebooks in her room, and realized that she had been writing a lot notes to herself as her memory had gradually failed, long before the stroke. There would be a date and an entry “My son went on a trip to Italy; he will be back on Wednesday” it would say. I knew she wrote that so she wouldn’t worry if he didn’t call. She noted when my brother or I called or visited her. She also collected clippings of my articles or interviews with me.

I flipped through the pages of her notebooks and saw an entry that was repeated, again and again, with some variation. “Zeynep became a professor” one said. “Zeynep was promoted to a professor.” “Zeynep is in the United States and she is a professor.” So it went. It was on many pages. It was on loose pieces of paper. It seemed to infuse the room.

"Zeynep became a professor"

I looked at dates and pieced together what must have happened. I called her quite often, and it seemed like she often wrote this down to herself every time after we chatted on the phone. She had gotten an education—against all odds—and had leveraged it to make a life as best she could for everyone she loved, and that was her achievement in life. She wasn’t just proud of me; she was proud of herself. She had deserved that applause, and she knew she deserved it.

Her notes to herself made sense in of what had happened: she didn’t dwell on the tragedies, and she hadn’t reinforced the painful memories. Instead, she had focused on the positives: her own education, her grandchildren. After phone conversations, she wrote reminders to herself: things had turned out okay.

I left Istanbul, relieved she was not unhappy or in pain, but also with a deep sense of loss. For the past decade, she had been preparing me: telling me that she was content, and ready for whatever came next.
The republic that her life was so intertwined with, too, is now undergoing a transformation, and one that I am increasingly disconnected from. It’s not possible to avoid the sense of loss, both personal and political.

But there are lessons, too, also for both.

Educate the girls. Call your elderly loved ones. And write down your good memories.

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100 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Recommendations from Kottke's recommendations

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Blogger Jason Kottke recently announced he’d be taking a sabbatical, and in his farewell post recommended thirty-two “sites and newsletters to keep you busy while I’m gone.” On a whim, I decided I’d subscribe to every recommendation with an RSS feed and see how many stuck. After two weeks of pruning, these are the additions that remain:

Maybe you’ll find something in there you like! (If not, you can head back to Kottke’s post and check out the full list in one of the postscripts towards the bottom.)

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132 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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Democrats Are Sleepwalking Toward Climate Disaster

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Sign up for The Weekly Planet, Robinson Meyer’s newsletter about living through climate change, here.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—On Monday night, I saw one of the most despair-inducing performances about the hope of climate action that I’ve witnessed in years.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, took the stage here at the Aspen Ideas: Climate festival to discuss what congressional Democrats are doing on climate change. Her remarks were more effective as a litany of missed opportunities. Susan Goldberg, recently the editor in chief of National Geographic, now a dean at Arizona State University, asked the speaker point-blank whether Democrats were going to pass climate legislation, and Pelosi all but shrugged. The House has already passed a roughly $2 trillion bill containing President Joe Biden’s climate priorities, she said. Now it was in the Senate’s hands. If it happened to get a bill back to her, the House would pass it.

Missing was any sense that this legislation is a make-or-break moment for the broader Democratic caucus. Gone was any suggestion that if Democrats fail to pass a bill this term, then America’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement will be out of reach, and worse heat waves, larger wildfires, and damaging famines across the country and around the world within the next decade and a half will be all but assured.

Pelosi did not seem to understand, really, why Congress needed to pass a climate law this session. (She seemed to blame the fossil-fuel industry for the current Congress’s inaction.) She repeatedly justified climate action by saying it was “for the children.” This became the rhetorical leitmotif of her remarks—Congress had to act “for the children.” Explaining why she wanted more women in Congress, she said that they had to learn to “throw a punch—for the children.” That line was how she closed.

Aside from the Helen Lovejoy–esque nature of this appeal, it is factually wrong. Climate action was “for the children” in the 1990s. “We’re not doing this for the children,” Kate Larsen, an energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, told me after the event. “We’re doing this for us!” Heat waves hot enough to cook human flesh are already happening this month; they will become more common over the coming decades, striking multiple times a year. Unbearable droughts, sea-level rise so high as to break levees, and unpredictable famines will characterize life. Most of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will undergo bleaching every few years, meaning the water will be so hot that the coral will eject their symbiotic microorganisms into the water, starving themselves in the process.

The speech seemed to punctuate the collapse of climate politics over the past year. During the campaign, Biden described climate change as one of the country’s four major overlapping crises. Yet his administration seems to be sleepwalking toward inaction. Five months ago, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, killed Biden’s Build Back Better bill after the White House repeatedly ignored his attempts to pare it down. Since then, Democrats have been stuck in limbo, with Manchin laying out some of his terms for a replacement bill, and Democrats neglecting to put together a new bill reflecting those terms. It now seems likely that Democrats will lose control of Congress with only a bipartisan infrastructure bill to show for their trouble.

Then they face overwhelming odds. Because of the geographic apportionment of their supporters, Democrats can win 51 percent of votes cast in the 2022 and 2024 elections and still lose eight Senate seats. I have heard estimates that the party must win eight points more than Republicans to pick up a Senate seat. Unless inflation abates, such an outcome will be so unlikely that it’s essentially impossible, consigning Democrats to minority status for years to come. Republicans, by contrast, have a plausible path to more than 60 seats, allowing them to pass legislation over that institution’s filibuster.

At the same time, the Biden administration could soon lose its ability to regulate climate change at all. The Supreme Court could restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases this term. It could also curtail Chevron deference, a legal doctrine that gives executive agencies more freedom to operate when the underlying law is unclear. In the past, both concepts have been central to Democratic climate-rule making. Both could be gone by 2023.

When reminded of this bleak outlook, climate progressives point to corporate action and the stock market, which both seemed to be moving in their direction. During the 2010s, most oil companies failed to turn a profit, validating activists’ demands that institutions should divest of fossil-fuel stock. But the markets have turned since the pandemic began. Oil-company stocks are some of the best performing of the past year. Funds that emphasize ESG, or “environmental, social, governance,” a vague category that covers such divergent topics as a company’s carbon footprint, how many women it has on its board, or how favorable it is to organized labor, have also underperformed in the recent market rout. At another conference here last month, the libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel attacked ESG as “a hate factory” and compared it to the “Chinese Communist Party.” This week, he backed a fund that would take intentionally anti-progressive stances.

Historically, progressives haven’t been too fond of ESG either, seeing it as a form of Wall Street greenwashing (or worse). But on climate, specifically, it has worked in their favor, allowing managers to take a less-than-direct approach to shareholder value and push forward loss-leading initiatives to reduce carbon pollution.

What all of this means is that, the next time a climate-skeptical president takes office, advocates will have fewer tools to constrain their behavior than last time. And they will have no future to point to: If Democrats couldn’t pass a climate bill in 2009 or 2022, why should anyone have any hope that they’ll try to do it again, or be able to?

Since 2017, a surge of global concern—much of it triggered by revulsion at President Donald Trump and by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 Celsius report—signaled a new era of climate action. That tide is ebbing. American climate advocates may have almost nothing to show for it.

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143 days ago
Santa Monica, California
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