Diplomats, academics, and activists from around the globe will gather yet again this week to try to find common ground on a plan for combating climate change. This year’s COP, as the event is known, marks the 28th annual meeting of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. More than 70,000 people are expected to descend on Dubai for the occasion.
That has left some to wonder: Have these annual gatherings outlived their usefulness?
To some, the yearly get-togethers continue to be a critical centerpiece for international climate action, and any tweaks they might need lie mostly around the edges. “They aren’t perfect,” said Tom Evans, a policy analyst for the nonprofit climate change think tank E3G. “[But] they are still important and useful.” While he sees room for improvements — such as greater continuity between COP summits and ensuring ministerial meetings are more substantive — he supports the overall format. “We need to try and find a way to kind of invigorate and revitalize without distracting from the negotiations, which are key.”
Others say the summits no longer sufficiently meet the moment. “The job in hand has changed over the years,” said Rachel Kyte, a climate diplomacy expert and dean emerita of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is among those who believe the annual COP needs to evolve. “Form should follow function,” she said. “And we are using an old form.”
Durwood Zaelke, co-founder and former president of the Center for International Environmental Law, was more blunt. “You can’t say that an agreement that lets a problem grow into an emergency is doing a good job,” he said. “It’s not.”
Established in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international treaty that aims to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Some 198 countries have ratified the Convention, which has seen some significant wins.
Get caught up on COP28
What is COP28? Every year, climate negotiators from around the world gather under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to assess countries’ progress toward reducing carbon emissions and limiting global temperature rise.
The 28th Conference of Parties, or COP28, is taking place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, between November 30 and December 12 this year.
What happens at COP? Part trade show, part high-stakes negotiations, COPs are annual convenings where world leaders attempt to move the needle on climate change. While activists up the ante with disruptive protests and industry leaders hash out deals on the sidelines, the most consequential outcomes of the conference will largely be negotiated behind closed doors. Over two weeks, delegates will pore over language describing countries’ commitments to reduce carbon emissions, jostling over the precise wording that all 194 countries can agree to.
What are the key issues at COP28 this year?
Global stocktake: The 2016 landmark Paris Agreement marked the first time countries united behind a goal to limit global temperature increase. The international treaty consists of 29 articles with numerous targets, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing financial flows to developing countries, and setting up a carbon market. For the first time since then, countries will conduct a “global stocktake” to measure how much progress they’ve made toward those goals at COP28 and where they’re lagging.
Fossil fuel phase-out or phase-down: Countries have agreed to reduce carbon emissions at previous COPs, but have not explicitly acknowledged the role of fossil fuels in causing the climate crisis until recently. This year, negotiators will be haggling over the exact phrasing that signals that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. They may decide that countries need to phase-down or phase-out fossil fuels or come up with entirely new wording that conveys the need to ramp down fossil fuel use.
Loss and damage: Last year, countries agreed to set up a historic fund to help developing nations deal with the so-called loss and damage that they are currently facing as a result of climate change. At COP28, countries will agree on a number of nitty-gritty details about the fund’s operations, including which country will host the fund, who will pay into it and withdraw from it, as well as the makeup of the fund’s board.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol marked the first major breakthrough, and helped propel international action toward reducing emissions — though only some of the commitments are binding, and the United States is notably absent from the list signatories. The 2015 Paris Agreement laid out an even more robust roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with a target of holding global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, and “pursuing efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).
Although the path to that future is narrowing, it is still within reach, according to the International Energy Agency. But, some experts say, relying primarily on once-a-year COP meetings to get there may no longer be the best approach.
“Multilateral engagement is not the issue anymore,” Christiana Figueres said at a conference earlier this year. She was the executive secretary of the Convention when the Paris agreement was reached, and said that while important issues that need to be ironed out on the international level — especially for developing countries — the hardest work must now be done domestically.
“We have to redesign the COPs…. Multilateral attention, frankly, is distracting governments from doing their homework at home,” she said. At another conference a month later, she added, “Honestly, I would prefer 90,000 people stay at home and do their job.”
Kyte agrees and thinks it’s time to take at least a step back from festival-like gatherings and toward more focused, year-round, work on the crisis at hand. “The UN has to find a way to break us into working groups to get things done,” she said. “And then work us back together into less of a jamboree and more of a somber working event.”
The list of potential topics for working groups to tackle is long, from ensuring a just transition to reigning in the use of coal. But one area that Zaelke points to as a possible exemplar for a sectoral approach is reducing emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.
“Methane is the blow torch that’s pushing us from global warming to global boiling,” he said. “It’s the single biggest and fastest way to turn down the heat.”
To tackle the methane problem, Zaelke points to another international agreement as a model: the Montreal Protocol. Adopted in 1987, that treaty was aimed at regulating chemicals that deplete the atmosphere’s ozone layer, and it has been a resounding success. The pollutants have been almost completely phased out and the ozone layer is on track to recover by the middle of the century. The compact was expanded in 2016 to include another class of chemicals, hydrochlorofluorocarbons.
“It’s an under-appreciated treaty, and it’s an under-appreciated model,” said Zaelke, noting that it included legally binding measures that the Paris agreement does not. “You could easily come to the conclusion we need another sectoral agreement for methane.”
Zaelke could see this tactic applying to other sectors as well, such as shipping and agriculture. Some advocates — including at least eight governments and the World Health Organisation — have also called for a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty”, said Harjeet Singh, the global engagement director for the initiative. Like Zaelke, Kyte, and others, he envisions such sectoral pushes as running complementary to the main Convention process — a framework that, while flawed, he believes can continue to play an important role.
“The amount of time we spend negotiating each and every paragraph, line, comma, semicolon is just unimaginable and a colossal waste of time,” he said of the annual events. But he adds the forum is still crucial, in part because every country enjoys an equal amount of voting power, no matter its size or clout.
“I don’t see any other space which is as powerful as this to deliver climate justice,” he said. “We need more tools and more processes, but we cannot lose the space.”
On December 13, 2022, a payload carrying a European weather satellite was sent into orbit from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Known as the Meteosat Third Generation Imager 1 (MTG-I1), it was the first launch of the next generation of satellites from the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).
Based in Darmstadt, Germany, and comprising 30 European countries as its members, EUMETSAT is the European operational satellite agency for monitoring weather and climate from space. EUMETSAT’s MTG-I1 satellite, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), carries two instruments on board, both of which are imagers.
Saildrone has received classification for an autonomous, uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). The mid-class vehicle in Saildrone’s fleet is the first-ever commercial autonomous USV to receive the classification, the company says.
The Saildrone Voyager, a 10m USV used for near-shore bathymetry and maritime security, is a platform and a force multiplier providing near-real-time data across the world’s oceans. Classification is a major milestone for Saildrone, enabling the Voyager to operate in the ports and waters of countries that require vessels to be classed by organizations such as ABS.
“Saildrone has spent three years maturing the Voyager design to be the industry leader in capability, reliability and safety in the uncrewed vehicle sector,” said Richard Jenkins, CEO and founder of Saildrone.
With the holiday season fast approaching, parents around the world are deciding which new toys to purchase for their kids this year. Many will opt for classic favorites like Lego bricks, Mr. Potato Heads, Jenga sets, and Barbie dolls. Others will choose toys with more high-tech flair — like remote-controlled robotic dogs, light-up drones, or books that play animal sounds — for that tot who loves smashing buttons.
But while modern parents are bombarded with ads for toys that light up, make sounds, move under their own power, and respond to voice commands, they don’t hear much about the environmental crisis fueled by electronic toys, or e-toys.
According to a recent report by the WEEE Forum, a multinational nonprofit organization focused on the management of “waste electrical and electronic equipment,” the world threw out more than 7 billion e-toys in 2022. Many, if not most, of these toys didn’t reach a proper e-waste recycling facility due to a dearth of regulations and consumer awareness that toys containing batteries and circuit boards require special disposal. Instead, experts believe these toys are often winding up in the regular trash, increasing the risk of battery fires at waste management facilities and creating new environmental hazards at landfills. Even when people want to recycle their e-toys properly, recyclers might not want to take them because they are hard to deconstruct and often contain very little material worth recycling.
Ultimately, experts say, toy makers and toy retailers must take more responsibility for e-toy waste — whether that’s by setting up take-back programs for broken e-toys, redesigning toys to be more recycling friendly, or embracing new business models that replace cheap, throwaway toys with stuff that’s built to last.
There’s no doubt our appetite for electronic toys is growing: Revenue from wholesale shipments of e-toys into the United States increased nearly 200 percent between 2010 and 2022, according to data from the Consumer Technology Association. Yet as e-toys proliferate, we seem to be valuing them less. In recent years, “toys have gone from being viewed more as essential tools to childhood development to junk you get at the holidays,” said Krystal Persaud, an award-winning toy designer and the cofounder of Wildgrid, an educational marketplace that uses game-like principles to help consumers learn how to implement home electrification projects. “Which is very unfortunate.” (Persaud was selected as a Grist 50 Fixer in 2023.)
Indeed, the pressure toy makers feel to make sales — particularly during the holiday season, when they earn a large chunk of their annual revenue — motivates them to constantly churn out new toys. Persaud described it as “very analogous to fast fashion.”
“It’s very trend driven,” she told Grist.
One of the ways a toy maker can stay trendy is by giving their toys new capabilities with embedded electronics. According to Persaud, the cost of manufacturing electronic components like circuit boards has fallen so much in the last several decades that it’s now relatively easy to incorporate them into the simplest and cheapest of toys, which is how parents end up with plastic trucks that bark sounds and flash lights.
The problem with cheap electronic toys is that they aren’t necessarily built to last, be repaired, or even have their batteries removed and replaced. As a result, many e-toys will inevitably become junk in somebody’s basement or garage until it’s time to get rid of them. At that point, e-toys “are going to end up most likely in the municipal solid waste system rather than the recycling stream,” said Callie Babbitt, a e-waste researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
That’s a problem both for safety and environmental reasons. E-toys with lithium-ion batteries can spark a fire if the battery is mishandled, crushed or punctured at a waste management facility. Once they enter landfills, electronics create additional hazards because some of their components contain toxic substances like lead, mercury, and cadmium that can leach into the surrounding soil and water, endangering the health of nearby communities and ecosystems.
The reason dead e-toys aren’t getting to the right place, Babbitt says, has to do with e-waste regulations. In the U.S., there’s no overarching federal guidance on how to manage e-waste, which is instead regulated through a patchwork of state policies. In roughly half of U.S. states, the policy is no policy at all. Most of the other states have some sort of “extended producer responsibility” scheme that requires electronic device manufacturers to pay funds into a program administered by state or local officials or private entities. Those funds go toward collecting specific electronics on a state collection list and sending them to e-waste recyclers. Not a single state collection list includes e-toys. “They’re not traditionally part of that system,” Babbitt said.
In many cases, consumers can still drop off e-toys at e-waste collection sites. But Babbitt says that “most of the effort toward actually communicating about recycling” is geared toward items on the state list, meaning consumer awareness about how to recycle e-toys is relatively low. And in some states, like Minnesota, consumers might have to pay a collection facility to take their junk toys, according to Maria Jensen, who co-directs a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Recycling Electronics for Climate Action that advocates for stronger e-waste recycling policies.
Often, county governments — which run many of Minnesota’s e-waste collection sites — “are not supported well enough to afford to collect and send those to a recycler,” Jensen told Grist. “So what happens is they charge the consumer.” While about a quarter of the e-waste Minnesotans generate is collected for recycling, Jensen speculates that the amount of e-toy waste collected is much lower.
Outside of the U.S., different countries have very different e-waste policies. But when it comes to e-toys, a similar pattern emerges globally: These devices are not reaching recyclers. While between 20 and 30 percent of large electronics like TVs and printers are recycled on a global scale, the global recycling rate for e-toys is closer to 10 percent, said Kees Baldé, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Baldé co-authored the recent WEEE Forum report that identified e-toys as the largest contributor to “invisible” e-waste, a category that included 9 million tons of electronics last year.
Invisible e-waste, which the report authors defined as types of e-waste with a very low recycling rate based on national data, also includes vapes, headphones, home smoke detectors, and other small consumer electronics. “Basically people don’t really know what to do” with e-toys and other forms of invisible e-waste, Baldé told Grist.
Worldwide, Baldé says, these products are only sometimes covered by extended producer responsibility schemes. Because they are often made of cheap materials like plastic with only small amounts of the precious metals that e-waste recyclers make money recovering and selling, recyclers tend to lose money processing them. “The treatment of e-waste, in particular this type of e-waste, is worthless,” Balde said.
The way e-toys are designed creates additional challenges for recyclers. Whereas TVs and computers tend to follow similar design principles and include similar components, toys come in a huge variety of sizes and form factors that recyclers may not be familiar with, meaning additional time and effort must be spent figuring out how to take them apart. What’s more, many are not built to be disassembled. More than a nuisance, this can be a hazard for recyclers, who may not be aware that a toy with no screws, charge ports, or obvious external labels contains a lithium-ion battery.
Frequently, e-toy batteries are “completely encased in plastic,” Jensen said. “So you actually have to break it open, physically, to get the battery out.” Otherwise, that battery could accidentally enter a recycler’s shredder and spark a fire.
To solve the e-toy waste crisis, experts say that regulators and the toy industry need to step up. Governments could expand their extended producer responsibility schemes to include more categories of electronics, such as e-toys. While this wouldn’t address design issues, it would provide the municipalities, nonprofits, or private businesses that collect e-waste much-needed funding to get these items to a recycler that can handle them. Toy manufacturers, or big box retailers like Walmart and Target, could serve as collection points for old e-toys, similar to how Best Buy stores collect a variety of consumer electronics and appliances for recycling. Persaud, the toy designer, suspects that retailers setting up e-toy take-back programs “would be the fastest” way to start collecting dead toys en masse.
The Toy Association, an industry group whose members account for 93 percent of toy and game sales in the U.S., didn’t respond to Grist’s request for comment.
In the longer term, design standards focused on longevity and repairability could slow the tide of waste by ensuring e-toys are built to last longer. The European Union recently adopted a new regulation that requires manufacturers of portable electronics to make their products’ batteries removable — an important first step. Baldé wants to see the bloc go much further. “We need more policy interventions to simply ban these products that don’t have a minimum guaranteed lifespan or can’t be repaired,” he said.
Finally, we all need to reframe our relationship with toys and stop treating them as disposable. While consumers can’t solve this problem alone, we can all be more mindful about the type and quantity of toys we buy. Parents, Persaud suggests, can ask friends and family for the type of toys they want their children to receive, perhaps requesting e-toys only when the electronics give the toy “a superpower that wasn’t there before.” Or they can stick to secondhand, analog, or even homemade toys made of highly recyclable materials like wood.
Persaud emphasized that kids, especially young children, don’t need their toys to have interactive buttons and light-up features in order to have fun with them. “There’s a lot of things you can do without [the toy] being electronic,” Persaud said. “Just with blocks, with paper. You can really play with anything.”
Diane Thompson, associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, explains the significance of studying Earth’s water cycle and how rising and falling temperatures have altered it.
It’s a multibillion-dollar question: What will happen to water availability as temperatures continue to rise? There will be winners and losers with any change that redistributes where, when and how much water is available for humans to drink and use.
To find answers and make informed predictions, scientists look to the past. Reconstructions of past climate change using geologic data have helped to show the far-reaching influence of human activity on temperatures since the industrial age.
Kitchen Arts & Letters, a legendary cookbook store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is tiny — just 750 square feet — but not an inch of space is wasted. With roughly 12,000 different cookbooks and a staff of former chefs and food academics, it’s the land of plenty for those seeking guidance beyond the typical weekday recipe.
One table is piled high with new cookbooks about ramen, eggs, and the many uses of whey, the overflow stacked in leaning towers above the shelves along the walls. One bookcase is packed with nothing but titles about fish. And next to a robust vegetarian section at the back of the store, tucked in a corner, is a minuscule collection of cookbooks about sustainability and climate change.
Natalie Stroud, a sales associate at Kitchen Arts & Letters, pointed me to the five titles featured there. “It’s hard,” she said, “because there aren’t many. But it’s something we’re trying to build out as it becomes more popular.”
Climate cookbooks seem to be picking up speed in parallel to a trend toward sustainable eating. In 2016, the term “climatarian” entered the Cambridge Dictionary — referring to a person who bases their diet on the lowest possible carbon footprint. In 2020, a survey by the global market research company YouGov found that 1 in 5 U.S. millennials had changed their diets to help the climate. If you consider a climate cookbook to be one that was written, at least in part, to address the dietary changes necessitated by the climate crisis, you can see a whisper of a subgenre beginning to emerge. At least a dozen have been published since 2020.
These cookbooks might play an important role in the transition to sustainable diets. It’s one thing — and certainly a useful thing — for scientists and international organizations to tell people how diets need to change to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. It’s another to bring the culinary path forward to life in actual dishes and ingredients. And recipe developers and cookbook authors, whose whole shtick is knowing what will feel doable and inspiring in the glow of the refrigerator light, might be the ones to do it.
I’ve been thinking about this handoff from science communicators to the culinary crowd for a while. I worked at Grist until I went to Le Cordon Bleu Paris to learn how to make sustainable desserts. (Climate cuisine is dead on arrival without good cake.) Now a recipe tester and Substacker with my own dream of a one-day cookbook, I find myself wondering what this early wave of climate cookbooks is serving for dinner.
What does climate cooking mean? And willthese cookbooks have any impact on the way average people cook and eat? The emerging genre of climate cookbooks puts a big idea on the menu: that there won’t be one way to eat sustainably in a warming world, but many — à la carte style.
Cookbooks about sustainable ways of eating are nothing new, even if they haven’t used the climate label. M.F.K. Fisher’s World War II-era book How to Cook a Wolf found beauty in cooking what you have and wasting nothing. The comforting recipes in the Moosewood Cookbook helped American vegetarianism unfurl its wings in the 1970s. Eating locally and seasonally is familiar, too. Edna Lewis spread it out on a Virginia table in The Taste of Country Cooking, and Alice Waters turned it into a prix fixe menu and various cookbooks at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.
But until recently, if you wanted to read about food and climate change, you had to turn to the nonfiction shelves. Books like The Fate of Food by Amanda Little (for which I was a research intern) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan swirl the two topics together as smoothly as chocolate and vanilla soft serve, albeit through a journalistic rather than culinary lens. The way we eat is both a driver of climate change — the food system accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions — and an accessible solution. Unlike energy or transportation or the gruel that is national politics, our diets are a problem with solutions as close as the ends of our forks.
It seems only natural that consideration for the climate would eventually waft into recipe writing and cookbooks. In 2019, NYT Cooking created a collection of climate-friendly recipes, albeit a sparse one by their standards, focused on meat alternatives, sustainable seafood, and vegan dishes. In 2021, Epicurious announced it would stop publishing new recipes containing beef, which is about 40 times more carbon-intensive than beans. In parallel, climate cookbooks have begun to proliferate, and so far, they’re offering varied entry points to sustainable eating.
A few recent food waste cookbooks want home cooks to know one thing: that simply using all our food is an undersung climate solution — one often overshadowed by red meat’s gaudier climate villainy. The research organization Project Drawdown lists reducing food waste as the climate solution that could cut the most emissions (closely followed by adopting plant-rich diets), a fact that caught Margaret Li’s attention when she and her sister Irene were writing Perfectly Good Food.
Other cookbooks take a different approach, offering home cooks a fully developed set of what we might call climate cooking principles.
When chef Tom Hunt wrote his 2020 cookbook Eating for Pleasure, People, and Planet, his goal was “to cover food sustainability in its entirety.” It opens with his “root-to-fruit manifesto,” which he translated from an academic book for a home cook audience and boiled down to a few ideas: plant-based, low-waste, and climate cuisine. By “climate cuisine” he means using local and seasonal ingredients, sourcing from labor- and land-conscious vendors (consider the cover crop, would you, in your next risotto?), and eating a rainbow of biodiverse foods.
Eating seasonally and locally are sometimes dismissed from the climate conversation because they don’t save much carbon, according to experts. But some argue that seasonal food tastes better and can help eaters steer away from climate red flags. Skipping out-of-season produce avoids food grown in energy-sucking greenhouses and stuff that’s flown in by plane, like delicate berries. (Air travel is the only mode of transport that makes food miles a big deal.) And local food comes with an oft-forgotten green flag: Buying from nearby farms strengthens regional food economies, which makes the food system more resilient to climate events and other shocks.
Hunt also makes the case for putting biodiversity on the plate. “Biodiversity has always felt like one of the key elements of this whole situation that we’re in,” he said. Today, nearly half of all the calories people eat around the world come from just three plants: wheat, rice, and maize. “That kind of monoculture is very fragile,” he explained. “People often don’t realize that our food is linked to biodiversity, and the diversity of the food that we eat can support biodiversity in general.”
Biodiversity is also a through line in For People and Planet — a collaboration between the United Nations and the nonprofit Kitchen Connection Alliance with recipes contributed by star chefs, Indigenous home cooks, and farmers. (We’ll call it the U.N. cookbook, since these titles otherwise threaten to blend into an alliterative purée). Its recipes are a global tour of plant-forward culinary biodiversity, like a West African moringa pesto pasta and banana-millet croquettes rolled in puffed amaranth that looks like teensy popcorn.
Published last year, the cookbook is divided into five big ideas: biodiversity, food and climate change, reducing food waste, sustainable consumption, and the food system. The topics came from a U.N. food systems summit, said Earlene Cruz, who is the founder and director of Kitchen Connection Alliance and who compiled the cookbook. They were the ones that “consumers needed more information on, but could also be contributors to in a positive way.”
The chapters on sustainable consumption and the food system argue that a sustainable eating philosophy isn’t complete without consideration of — among other things — resilience and nutrition. What does that mean in dinner form? In Nunavut, Canada, it might mean choosing grilled Arctic char, because it’s part of a nutritionally and culturally important Inuit fishing economy. (Folks in other parts should source it carefully, since seafood is environmentally complicated.) Among the Maasai Indigenous community in Kenya, it might mean serving enkum, a starchy side dish that uses low-cost veggies, since frequent droughts and social unrest make food prices high. The chapters stress communities’ ability to feed themselves healthily, on their own terms, regardless of what climate disruptions may come or what industrial food supply chains may peddle.
The U.N. cookbook raises an important idea: that there won’t be one sustainable diet around the world, but many. Still, the mix of considerations it tosses into the pan — water scarcity, nutrition, food sovereignty, biodiversity, pollution — might leave home cooks slightly overwhelmed. You might shut the book, stomach rumbling, and wonder: OK, well, what should I make for dinner if I care about people and the planet?
Coming up with recipes for the planet’s well-being involves a number of considerations. How do you come up with a climate cooking philosophy that’s scientifically rigorous and approachable? What do you do about regionality — the fact that some things, like tomatoes, can be grown sustainably in one part of the world, but might require a greenhouse to grow elsewhere? And how do you handle the climate-offender-in-chief — meat?
Most of the climate cookbook authors mentioned above allow for diets that include animal products. They generally don’t want to turn off omnivores, but the overtures they make to meat-eating vary. Hunt’s cookbook Eating for Pleasure, People, and Planet is plant-based, but he includes advice on sourcing meat and fish sustainably for those who do indulge. The U.N. cookbook opted to include some meat recipes, like a South African beef dish called bobotie that could counter childhood malnutrition. Cruz, who compiled the cookbook, is vegetarian; she just doesn’t like the taste of meat. But, she explains, “if I’m putting my personal views aside, some cultures do need to eat meat to sustain themselves.”
More complicated is picking an ingredient list that will be sustainable for everyone who might use the cookbook, regardless of geography, culture, or socioeconomic status. Amy Trubek, a professor in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, thinks this is one of the biggest challenges climate cookbook authors will face.
“The glossy cookbook genre now, it’s a hard situation in a way,” she said, “because they’re supposed to be pitching it to any middle- or upper-middle-class consumer anywhere in the United States, and they could be living in a penthouse apartment in Chicago, or they could be living in a ranch in New Mexico. So how do you teach about [sustainable eating] without thinking about specificity and regionality?”
Cookbook authors have a few options. They could write a regionally specific cookbook, or a mass-market one starring ingredients that grow sustainably in lots of places (as One did). Or they could write a cookbook that samples vast biodiversity at some cost to sourceability — that’s the approach the U.N. cookbook took.
“There are many cookbooks that could … have 90 percent of the recipes be part of your staple at home,” Cruz said. “But that serves a different purpose.” The U.N. cookbook is instead “almost a launching point into everyone’s own culinary exploration and everyone’s own culinary journey.”
That exploratory emphasis — embodied not just in the recipes but in accompanying carbon and nutrition calculations and in principles that offer starting points rather than answers — puts it at one end of the spectrum in the balance these authors strike between nuance and approachability, science and art. As Cruz put it, “What we wanted to create was sort of a textbook in disguise.”
One, on the other hand, was always meant to make people pull out a cutting board. Jones includes no small measure of environmental nuance — she tucks articles on issues like soil health and ethical sourcing between her recipe chapters — but her recipes themselves don’t ask the cook to do anything other than make weeknight meals with supermarket ingredients. “I could have foraged for sea buckthorn and written a chapter on sea asparagus,” she laughs, “and I would love for everyone to be foraging. But that’s not the reality … I wanted to write a sustainable cookbook, but I also wanted to write a cookbook filled with recipes people could make.”
No matter the topic, writing a cookbook is a big undertaking. Authors develop 100 or more recipes, typically handing them off to recipe testers in batches to poke, prod, and polish to infallibility. And while roughly 20 million cookbooks are sold in the U.S. each year, the field is ever more crowded, so it’s harder to stand out.
For now, the climate cookbooks shelf is still tiny, and it’s hard to know which ones readers might be most tempted to pick up — let alone which, if any, might actually create meaningful shifts in what and how we eat.
“People buy cookbooks for myriad reasons,” wrote Matt Sartwell, the managing partner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, in an email to Grist. “But if there is anything that people will pay for — recipes and information being free and abundant on the internet — it’s a clear point of view and the promise that an author has given a subject very serious thought.”
One: Pot, Pan, Planet is Jones’ best-selling cookbook to date, despite the fact that leaning into sustainability “felt like a bit of a risk,” she said.
She has a hunch about why it’s been popular. “People want to try and make a difference,” she said. “I think it felt comforting for people to have a book full of recipes that it felt OK to eat.”
NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP) has launched a new data visualization tool, which will provide free and easy-to-access information on the status of US coral reefs.
According to the organization, it is the first tool focusing on shallow tropical coral reef data to be hosted on the NOAA GeoPlatform, which is NOAA’s central hub for geospatial data and tools. Now stakeholders, scientists, managers and students have a one-stop information hub to access and understand NOAA’s shallow tropical coral data that they can customize to focus on coral trends across specific timescales, locations, coral or fish species, climate data and socioeconomics.
The workers had spent the morning of November 8, 2021, clipping, trussing, and trellising hundreds of thousands of tomato plants that twisted almost four stories into the air. They were inside one of the world’s largest high-tech greenhouses, which sits on more than 60 acres of a former cattle field in Morehead, Kentucky.
As one of the greenhouse workers, who I’ll call Nora, sat down for lunch in the worker canteen, she heard her colleagues whisper about their new task for the day. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell would be visiting that afternoon to give a speech praising the greenhouse company, AppHarvest. Before he arrived, management had to make sure their Spanish-speaking colleagues disappeared.
“We had very little time,” recalled Nora, whose real name is being withheld because she is subject to a nondisclosure agreement. “We had to get them off the premises and away before he got there.”
Nora watched her coworkers get dismissed, grab their stuff, and leave on white buses bound for a trio of small motels where the largely Mexican contract workers lived four or five to a room. When McConnell arrived, Nora joined her remaining, mostly-white colleagues on the sunny lawn. Their clean T-shirts advertised AppHarvest’s name and logo, intended to invoke both the Appalachian region where they worked and the iconic branding of Apple — Silicon Valley by way of the Middle American upstart.
“We all know the decline of the coal industry only got worse, and so this [AppHarvest] gives us hope,” the senator said, praising the local labor force encircling him. “You are the real leaders, I think, in beginning to fully develop all of Kentucky’s potential.”
It was a familiar message, one that had been touted over and over in nationally televised interviews, public filings, and company reports by AppHarvest’s then-CEO, a Kentucky native and entrepreneur named Jonathan Webb. In 2018, the 32-year-old Webb returned home with the promise of building a dozen high-tech, hydroponic indoor farms across Eastern Kentucky and the surrounding region, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, and lettuce. Not only would he be piloting an advanced form of climate-resilient agriculture, he would also be generating gainful, blue-collar employment in some of the country’s most economically-distressed counties, where he argued that the coal industry’s downfall left a void that could be filled by sustainable industry.
Workers would start at $13 an hour, with hefty productivity bonuses and a track to internal promotions. Then there were the perks: 100 percent employer-paid health insurance premiums for both employees and their families, monthly boxes of farm-fresh produce, and stock options once the company went public. In a region terrorized by the opioid epidemic, AppHarvest also offered jobs to formerly incarcerated people in recovery from addiction.
Webb’s worker-centric pitch raised over $700 million for AppHarvest to get off the ground and catapulted him into the national spotlight, with largely glowing coverage from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, and Forbes. It also convinced a number of big names to join the company’s board: Martha Stewart, activist investor Jeffrey Ubben, former Impossible Foods CFO David Lee, and J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author who would later win election to a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio with a Trump-inspired, anti-immigrant message.
McConnell’s speech in Morehead highlighted another major theme in AppHarvest’s advertising: replacing what Webb has called “dirty” agricultural imports from Mexico with safe, nutritious berries, lettuce, and tomatoes from central Appalachia.
Lettuce grows in AppHarvest’s greenhouse in Berea, Kentucky. Courtesy of AppHarvest
“I like the idea of taking the tomato market away from the Mexicans,” McConnell said that afternoon, according to an employee’s video recording of the event. Some workers looked around in surprise. Others seated behind McConnell rocked nervously in chairs, trying to catch the eyes of friends on the lawn. Applause can be heard in the recording, but at least one employee booed. The moment felt rigid and frail, like a ship just beginning to sink below the sea.
“No wonder they sent the f—ing contractors [home],” one worker said, turning to a coworker off-camera.
The discontent that day wasn’t just about optics, or fairness to the contract workers. It was the culmination of a year of frustration with a company that had promised to deliver both Grade A tomatoes and fulfilling rural employment but was falling dramatically short on both counts. Even as Senator McConnell sang the company’s praises, AppHarvest was already well on its way to a spectacular collapse, the full story of which has never been told until now. The celebrated startup’s demise also highlights the dangers of expanding and relying on high-tech, indoor agricultural schemes that promise shortcuts to making farming more climate-friendly.
A year earlier, Nora had seen a billboard for AppHarvest on a state highway. She was hired after hearing a version of the company’s pitch that promised a strict 40-hour week and the opportunity to advance — something she had rarely found in the service jobs she’d worked since graduating high school. The promise was quickly broken: She was almost immediately told she needed to start working weekend overtime or her job would be in jeopardy. She found that her training in tomato caretaking — planting, pruning, harvesting — left much to be desired, and she and other workers were often confused over their job duties and requirements.
By summer, the greenhouse began reaching dangerously high indoor temperatures, and Nora watched coworkers struggle with dehydration and heat exhaustion. Turnover spiked. Nora developed asthma and anxiety, but she stayed the course.
That same summer, the company told investors that low productivity and high turnover at its Morehead greenhouse had led to a $32 million net loss. Stockholders then filed the first of five lawsuits alleging securities fraud, noting that AppHarvest’s own leadership had repeatedly cited “employee training, turnover, and poor work ethic” as the root causes of the company’s failure to reach profitability.
As workers soldiered on over the next two years, AppHarvest’s financial position continued to decline. This summer, lenders started demanding repayment of$182 million. Soon after, Webb was out as CEO, and AppHarvest declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Bankruptcy filings show that the company owes over $1.4 million to at least three agricultural work placement agencies that help farms fill temporary agricultural jobs with foreign nationals. In September, Webb was fired from the company altogether. All of AppHarvest’s five facilities in Kentucky — two in Morehead, and one each in Berea, Richmond, and Somerset — are now in the hands of new owners. (In response to a detailed list of questions for this story, AppHarvest’s chief legal officer, Gary Broadbent, said that the company has no continuing operations and was not in a position to respond.)
A new investigation from Grist finds that what went on inside the company from its earliest days bore little resemblance to the sustainable, worker-friendly operation that Webb publicly touted. State documents obtained through open records requests, including complaints to Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health Committee, as well as interviews with 12 former employees from both the flagship Morehead greenhouse and corporate office, reveal issues widespread across AppHarvest’s operations. They expose how unsafe working conditions, negligible training that failed to prepare workers for their job requirements, and an unprofessional workplace doomed the company nearly from the start.
Editor’s note: Due to fear of legal reprisal from AppHarvest, all but three former employees interviewed for this story — including Nora, whose name is a pseudonym — requested anonymity to speak candidly about their experiences; AppHarvest employees signed nondisclosure agreements upon their hire, which have no termination date in the state of Kentucky.
Inside the Morehead greenhouse, the heat index could spike to 155 degrees Fahrenheit, according to worker interviews, leading to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and medical emergencies. The stress of the work environment led to panic attacks, ideation of personal harm, and relapses into addiction. Less than a year after the first seeds had been planted, benefits like employer-paid health insurance ended, company stocks plummeted, harvests failed to yield sufficient Grade A produce, and AppHarvest pivoted from uplifting Appalachia’s blue-collar workforce to bussing in workers from outside the region.
“My whole view of AppHarvest was we were all sold on this beautiful pipe dream,” one corporate worker told Grist. “This is sustainable, this is new, we’re going to make it. It turned out to just be a f—ing nightmare.”
Webb claims a connection to Eastern Kentucky through his ancestors: His great-grandfather died in a coal mining accident in Whitley County, where he says his grandmother grew up on a dirt floor. After graduation from the University of Kentucky’s business school, Webb moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a contractor on renewable energy projects under the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives. Then, he read about controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, in a 2017 National Geographic story.
He quickly decided CEA could be as important a climate solution as renewable energy or electric cars — and as good an investment. CEA proponents argue both that farming needs to become less climate-dependent in a warming world and that its land footprint needs to shrink dramatically if the world hopes to preserve biodiversity and carbon sinks like forests. Indoor facilities outfitted with careful climate controls could theoretically accomplish this. For inspiration, Webb looked to the Netherlands, where high-tech greenhouses successfully grow produce for export year-round, on a total acreage that’s only twice the size of Manhattan. Without any prior professional experience in farming, he quit his job and founded AppHarvest the next year.
Webb was hardly alone in his bullishness on CEA. Congress’ 2018 Farm Bill, which expired earlier this year, expanded support of CEA research and development to mitigate food system risks, creating a federal Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production and distributing over $40 million in grants between 2020 and 2022. Over the last decade, the sustainability argument for CEA has helped the sector raise billions of dollars in private investments for a variety of startups.
Unlike in the Netherlands, where indoor farmers have learned best practices over half a century of trial and error, American startups like AppHarvest have overwhelmingly failed to turn a profit, or even break even. The crux of the problem is that roughly 75 percent of the industry’s costs stem from labor and energy. And while traditional agriculture works because it takes advantage of natural conditions, CEA has to artificially produce optimal growing conditions and power them with electricity. In a world still largely powered by commodified fossil fuels — nearly 70 percent of Kentucky’s grid remains coal-fired — that’s going to be prohibitively expensive in most places.
“It’s the fundamental physics challenge of turning fossil fuel energy into food,” said Bruce Bugbee, a plant scientist at Utah State University.
Even as the U.S. CEA market is predicted to be worth $3 billion by 2024, the high costs of running these facilities have accumulated quickly, leading to a domino of bankruptcies and closures over the last two years. Fifth Season, a Pennsylvania-based indoor farm that raised $35 million to sell salad kits in over 1,200 stores, closed without any warning a year ago, turning off its electricity and leaving its lettuce plants to die. In April, the Florida-based Kalera, which raised $100 million and became the first publicly-listed vertical farm in the U.S., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then, in June, even 19-year-old AeroFarms, which had raised hundreds of millions of dollars, filed for bankruptcy, though it claims it will continue some operations while restructuring the business.
“People with billions of dollars became aware of this industry and they think it’s the wave of the future,” said Bugbee, “but it doesn’t mean there’s been a scientific shift. It staggers me how much money they’re putting in.”
Without a viable solution to CEA’s fundamental energy dilemma, AppHarvest took increasingly desperate measures to wring profits out of the problem that has plagued agriculture for as long as humans have been farming: labor.
By the time she turned 30, Ahna Baxter’s life had long been dictated by the demanding hours and low wages of jobs in restaurants and factories. But a temporary gig at a vineyard near her hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky, gave her a glimpse of something different. She learned to press grapes into wine; she grew cucumbers and cantaloupe and admired the sunflowers that waved above her head. For the next few years, she dreamt of starting a small farm of her own.
That dream dried up just before the COVID-19 lockdowns. Baxter had just lost both a friend and family member to suicide, and she became dependent on her prescription Adderall to get through the day and alcohol to sleep at night. She abandoned her fledgling agricultural business, Ahna’s All Naturals, and checked into a 30-day rehab program.
As Baxter got back on her feet after rehab, she found comfort returning from work every day in time to tune into Governor Andy Beshear’s evening updates. The televised talks were like Mister Rogers for adults: a familiar voice for Kentuckians dealing with the confusion, loneliness, and grief brought by the pandemic, not to mention everything else Baxter had just been through.
In the summer of 2020, Beshear announced something that revived Baxter’s hope in a future tied to the land: AppHarvest, a nascent company turning heads with its promise of cutting-edge agritech, was hiring in Eastern Kentucky. The startup was offering the highest wage she’d ever made, opportunities for promotions, and training in agriculture. Baxter immediately went online and applied.
About a month later, she got a phone call from AppHarvest and met the hiring managers in Morehead. The interview was unlike any she’d had before. Instead of pressing her on why she would be a good fit for the position, AppHarvest seemed to be selling its vision to her. She thought this overt enthusiasm, coupled with a lack of clarity on basic job duties, was odd, but the opportunity was just too good to pass up. She quit her job as a landscape foreman, sold most of her belongings, and moved her RV to a friend’s backyard for her first month of employment before renting a trailer in the Cave Run Mobile Home Park in Morehead during the fall of 2020. After battling addiction, Baxter thought this clean break could help make a better life for herself and her then-16-year-old son, Eli, whom she’d had at 17.
“I sacrificed a lot, but I felt that this was it,” Baxter told me. “I felt like this was the end all be all. This is the company I’m going to be with forever.”
During orientation — a pep rally-style event with loud country music, cheering employees, and team-building games that lasted roughly a week — employees watched the David Attenborough documentary A Life on Our Planet. They learned that while traditional agriculture leaves soils depleted, their work growing produce indoors could save the food system. But the intricacies of working with tomato plants were largely glossed over during orientation, according to worker interviews. While some managers had formerly worked in indoor agriculture, most workers were new to the industry. Nora, who applied around the same time as Baxter after seeing an AppHarvest billboard go up in Morehead, recalled her husband was suspicious.
“He thought it was a bad idea from the get go,” said Nora. “I fed him the same lines they fed me: It’s a start up, it takes time working out the kinks.” Her husband replied that AppHarvest was either the greatest job ever, or it was going to be the greatest con.
But the company culture was contagious. When Nora and Baxter finally started working as clippers — attaching tomato vines to plastic hooks that hung from the ceiling — they were so excited that they often skipped between the rows of plants. Nora told herself she was making a difference.
Then, within weeks of the Morehead greenhouse opening in November of 2020, Nora and her colleagues were told they needed to work overtime.
“Ten minutes before the end of the shift they’d come over and say, ‘Due to a lack of attendance we’re doing work continuance until it’s done,’” Nora remembered. “So either you stay and work, or lose your job. You’d be so worn out and overheated and dehydrated you’d do anything they’d want you to do.”
An internal memo circulated to all Morehead employees the following spring confirms the policy. “At any given time an emergency could require immediate mandatory Overtime,” the document read, while attempting to maintain a sunny tone: “Working in a greenhouse has its challenges and one of them is keeping our Plants Happy!” Nora said that when she complained, her supervisor told her that she “needed to learn to sacrifice.”
But no amount of overtime could compensate for their light-touch training and resulting confusion over how exactly to truss, de-leaf, and prune the hundreds of thousands plants in the greenhouse. Plant diseases took hold. Tomatoes started rotting, resulting in almost 50 percent wasted product, according to the securities fraud suit. The bonuses workers were promised felt impossible to earn. Turnover spiked.
“They took people who had never done this before, threw them in a greenhouse, gave us minimal training on how to do it, and expected us to produce Grade A tomatoes when all we’d done was backyard farming,” said Nora. “No one was ever on the same page. No one in any greenhouse used the same techniques, and I think that was 90 percent of their quality issue.”
While AppHarvest’s failings were becoming clear to its workers even in its early months, Webb and other company leaders were still raising money. After 12 rounds of funding, AppHarvest had secured almost $800 million from funders like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rise of the Rest, a D.C.-based seed capital firm focused on Middle American startups. By early 2021, it became the first controlled environment agriculture company in the United States to go public, at $35.69 per share. Webb personally got a $1.5 million bonus for the stock listing and $31 million in stock awards. The company’s initial valuation of $1 billion soon grew to $3.7 billion.
One afternoon during the first summer of AppHarvest’s operation, then-55-year-old Janet Moore threw up at least three times from heat exhaustion in the bathroom outside the greenhouse. Other workers recalled seeing coworkers pass out from heat and leave on steel trolleys — or, sometimes, in ambulances.
Though the position was a financial improvement on the $7 an hour Moore once made working on a tobacco farm, the heat inside the greenhouse turned out to be far worse than an outdoor farm. One worker called it “an absolute grueling hell on earth.” Workers were only allowed to leave the greenhouse if the heat index reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a worker who helped those suffering from heat exhaustion. Another worker said thermometers were covered in gray trash bags or moved to poles where workers couldn’t see a heat index that the medical assistant said once peaked at 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the company began having productivity challenges, it seemed like no temperature was high enough to relieve workers of their greenhouse shifts; according to worker interviews, managers would simply alternate workers in 30-minute increments between the greenhouse and the air-conditioned packhouse.
Starting as early as August 2020, during construction of the Morehead greenhouse, workers filed eight complaints to the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet for Occupational Safety and Health. Almost half of those complaints, revealed for the first time in an open records request received by Grist, concerned the heat in the Morehead greenhouse and a second AppHarvest greenhouse in Berea, a town about 80 miles southwest. In July 2021, one complaint said workers were laboring in a heat index ranging from 115 to 136 degrees Fahrenheit.
“For the past few days no one has taken any temperatures,” the labor filing reads, adding that the company doesn’t allow workers to go home early, even though they work in direct sunlight and several suffered heat exhaustion. (While no federal heat standard exists for workers, a heat index — what the air feels like when combining relative humidity and air temperature — above 103 degrees Fahrenheit presents “danger,” according to the National Weather Service, while anything over 126 degrees Fahrenheit indicates “extreme danger.”)
At the Berea farm, a July 2022 complaint said that even on high-humidity, nearly 100-degree days, potable water was only available to production workers if they walked eight minutes to an administrative trailer they could only access during breaks. And because non-potable water wasn’t labeled as such, desperate employees had drawn unsafe drinking water into their bottles when safe drinking water was unavailable.
Other safety concerns detailed in the complaints included the sudden onset of nausea, and on two occasions vomiting, when the plants were sprayed with “something unsafe.” Two more complaints said tearing out mold, dust, and insulation from walls caused eye and lung irritation. Employees reported that they didn’t receive respirators, and during the tear-out one team member went to the hospital for breathing issues, according to the complaints.
Another said guide wires holding tomatoes were snapping from the weight of the fruit. “If someone is working the rows and the wire snaps, over 500 tomato plants will fall on whomever is in the [row],” the complainant told the state safety office. In a separate filing, an employee said guide wires broke over three days in February 2023, and that as wires fell there was the possibility of “taking someone’s head off and/or extremely hurting their bodies.”
Moore thinks that the repetitive motion of caring for the tomatoes — removing suckers, topping plants, ripping leaves off the bottom stems — led to carpal tunnel in her hands, both of which required surgery. She said her job was threatened if she felt sick from the heat or had to go to a doctor’s appointment for her hands. Moore and other workers also complained of rashes from the heat, plant matter, and gas agents sprayed to quickly ripen the tomatoes. Baxter, in recovery from addiction, relapsed when she drank a beer at a company field party that offered free drink tickets to workers.
While AppHarvest appeared to shrug off worker complaints in its early days, it publicized employees who represented the values that had earned it the label of a certified B Corp — intended for businesses with high standards of performance, accountability, and transparency, especially when it comes to employee benefits — as well as its designation as a public benefit corporation created to generate social good responsibly and sustainably. Erin Mays, who applied for her job at AppHarvest from the Rowan County Detention Center in February 2021, where she was serving her 10th sentence for drug possession charges, was perfect for the role: She was petite but strong, and she quickly took on the task of lowering plants, a job otherwise done mostly by men.
From the start, Mays was infatuated with AppHarvest; she appeared on the company’s Instagram as a “dedicated team member.” She told her family and friends to buy stock in the company, convinced it was the future for her region. Mays also met her now-spouse on the job, and the two were often asked to speak to greenhouse guests.
“We were used as poster kids,” Mays said. “If there were photo ops or people came in, I feel like they would start to use me or Leo because we were big members of recovery in our community. We were outspoken and well spoken.”
But a couple months into the job, Mays relapsed on Suboxone, a medication for opioid use disorder, which if misused can lead to dependency, addiction, or overdose. She remembered that her hiring packet said she could go to treatment and still keep her job. When she asked human resources, however, they said that if she left for rehab, they couldn’t guarantee her job would be waiting for her. And even if a job was available, she remembers being told, she wouldn’t be eligible for six months.
Mays didn’t want to lose her position, so she used over-the-counter pain relievers to work straight through a month of low-grade withdrawals while continuing her highly physical, monotonous tasks in the scorching greenhouse.
While standing at the top of her cart to lift and lower plants, which could rise up to 20 feet off the ground, she suffered aches and body chills. She would rush to the bathroom with a bout of diarrhea or to throw up. Because she was on the far west end of the facility, the closest bathroom was a porta potty, and Mays would have to be really sure she had to use it before she left — her bathroom breaks were monitored, and she didn’t want to get written up.
Workers said their jobs were at times so difficult and poorly managed that even physically fit and healthy employees could snap. One morning in August 2021 — the very same day that Webb admitted to investors that AppHarvest was staring down a $32 million net loss — Baxter arrived at work to find that she was in charge of more workers without additional assistance. The outside temperature was hovering in the 80s, she said, but the heat index in the greenhouse was 40 degrees higher, around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. She brought in five water bottles she’d frozen the night before to stay hydrated, along with the inhaler she kept in her locker in case of an asthma attack.
She was irritated, and her manager seemed on edge. He told Baxter to make her employees sweep the greenhouse rows differently three separate times. Because of the heat, they were alternating working between the greenhouse and the air-conditioned packhouse every 30 minutes. Her employees were overheated, and they told her they needed to sit down, drink water, and rest. She told them she knew they were exhausted, but to please pretend they were cleaning.
By mid-afternoon, drenched in sweat, Baxter took stock of the bustling greenhouse around her and the list of tasks still on her mounting to-do list. Overwhelmed, she put down her badge and her notebook, cleaned out her locker, and walked out the front door, quitting not only a job but her dream of making her living off the land. She drove home to the trailer she’d moved into only ten months earlier, let her dogs out, sat on the front stoop, and sobbed. That day, AppHarvest stocks fell 29 percent.
By the end of 2021, AppHarvest had earned only $9 million out of a projected $21 million in revenue. The next year, the company met less than half of its most optimistic sales projections. Beginning in early 2023, company stocks that once peaked above $42 per share never again rose above $1. In the spring, AppHarvest claimed it had only about $50 million on hand. Debt had reached $182 million. In order to remain in business, the company needed additional investors to provide an infusion of cash by October, according to public filings.
Workers who convinced family and friends to buy stocks in the company said those who invested lost thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, former board member Jeffrey Ubben “cashed out,” according to the securities fraud litigation, before the company’s problems were publicly acknowledged in August of 2021. He sold 3 million shares at an average price of $16.50 per share, making $49.5 million.
Baxter tried to get her job back, including by reapplying through Indeed. But she said once she walked out, no one ever contacted her again, or replied to her requests to return. Moore said she quit after she was told by the human resources manager that she couldn’t work while taking pain medicine for a back injury she acquired at work, after slipping on a loose mat meant to sanitize workers’ shoes. Other workers left for jobs that demanded less overtime or paid higher wages. Some were fired after being minutes late to work, and some were handed termination notices during mass layoffs. One corporate employee was walked off their job by a security guard.
“Ironically, in the next round of layoffs, I guess the security guard walked himself out because he got fired,” the employee told Grist.In February 2022, half the office staff and all but one employee in the marketing department were let go in a single day, according to another former corporate employee.
Over the course of 2021 and 2022, while AppHarvest let go of costly employees who drained the company pocketbook with high salaries and wages, health insurance premiums, and requests for promotions, the company hired contract laborers who wouldn’t get any of this. In a November 2021 public filing, AppHarvest noted the tightening nationwide labor market, the cost of training a new workforce, and issues of retention: “In order to forestall any potential labor shortfall, we have hired contract laborers from outside of the region to help complete our next harvest.”
Less than a year after opening, AppHarvest began bringing in contract workers, according to multiple statements by former workers, a Rowan County executive, local residents, and a 2021 public filing. The new workers arrived in Morehead each morning on big white buses, according to Nora. They worked longer hours, sometimes not leaving until midnight, after picking up a second shift in the air-conditioned packhouse, according to multiple worker statements. While paid a similar starting rate to the local workers, according to a visa application filed by AppHarvest for its Pulaski County facility, they didn’t receive benefits like health insurance or stock options, according to worker interviews. An open records request from the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet reveals that just over the last year, AppHarvest brought in at least 140 migrant workers at $13.89 an hour at its Madison and Pulaski County farms.
Workers were housed in mobile homes and apartment complexes where the number of laborers appeared to far exceed occupancy levels. In Pulaski County, three mobile homes with an occupancy total of 17 were listed as the housing options for 30 workers. In Richmond, a 15-unit apartment complex with a 61-person limit was listed as the housing option for 90 workers. In Morehead, workers have been housed at the Red Roof Inn, Days Inn, and Comfort Inn, where there are no cooking stations and workers sometimes squeeze five into a two-bed room, according to Anne Colbert, a retired physician who runs a volunteer migrant support group in Morehead.
Colbert said her organization first became aware of migrant laborers at AppHarvest last fall, when a volunteer saw a large group at Walmart. A few days before Thanksgiving, Colbert sent an email to Travis Parman, AppHarvest’s chief communications officer, and told him the group was “recently made aware of the needs of a group of Mexican contracted laborers working at AppHarvest who did not have appropriate winter clothing.” Though the volunteers had already gathered winter clothing to donate to the new workers, Colbert pressed Parman on the company’s plans to ensure that the group’s basic needs were met. “We don’t believe these guests should have to rely on donated goods,” she wrote.
Parman responded the next day, noting he was “not the right person” for her to talk to but “close enough,” and promising to consult with other employees and reply promptly. Colbert never heard anything more. Instead, her group delivered bags of apples and oranges to the motels where workers were housed over Christmas.
Last year, Nora typically had 20 or more contract laborers on her team, and about 12 local people. All the greenhouse workers I spoke to who left in 2022 or 2023 said that, by the time they left, contract workers outnumbered local employees. As of this summer, AppHarvest retained more than 450 of these contract workers, paying them approximately $2.5 million each month.
This change in strategy was a complete departure from AppHarvest’s original pledge to hire Appalachian workers and build up the region with reliable, blue-collar careers. “Traditionally, many agricultural workers in the U.S. have been H-2A, temporary agricultural workers, who at best are offered housing and other perks if they’re seasonal,” the company had noted in a 2020 report. Instead, AppHarvest wrote, as a certified B Corp, the company valued collective benefit over individual gain, along with empowering Appalachians and improving the lives of employees and the community. In a 2021 interview, Webb said, “Prioritizing the employee, that’s just simple human decency.”
Harry Clark, the judge executive of Rowan County, said that Webb only reluctantly pursued contract labor when he couldn’t fill positions locally. But his comments run counter to what former employees say they saw and experienced: A former corporate employee said the work Webb did — talking to reporters, appearing on the news, uplifting the Appalachian labor force — was “all about image.” A former member of the marketing team recalled that photographers were told not to take pictures of the contract workers, most of whom were Hispanic, because the company wanted to show it was employing Appalachians, who were largely white. When the former marketing team member visited the greenhouse, they saw few workers in the thick rows of green tomato vines until a Mexican song came over the shared speaker system and they heard laborers sing along.
“He [Webb] was trying really hard to relate to the blue-collar workforce that we have in Morehead,” said the corporate employee. When I visited the greenhouse to report on AppHarvest for Rolling Stone in 2021, Webb called himself a “resident of Kentucky” who lived in his RV on the Morehead construction site while looking for apartments nearby. But the year before, he had bought a 4,000-square foot house for almost $1.4 million in Lexington, an hour’s drive away, which was later the subject of a home makeover featured on HGTV. (Webb did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
Mays said she felt she was kept on as long as she was to “keep up appearances that they were giving jobs to Appalachian people.” But she was eventually fired over the phone, just a month after she and her fiance had gotten engaged at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and Webb’s personal assistant had offered to pay for their wedding on company grounds. “We legitimately thought these people were our family and they cared about us,” she said.
After two years with AppHarvest, Nora had a long conversation with her husband. She was miserable at work, and she felt her mental health wasn’t prioritized by her employer.
“I’ve been having these thoughts, and I think they’re dangerous,” she told him. “On the way to work every morning, I want to let go of my steering wheel and wreck it so I don’t have to go in. I don’t want to die, but I want to get hurt enough so I don’t have to work.”
Her husband encouraged her not to go back, but Nora felt an overwhelming sense that she owed AppHarvest her labor and her loyalty.
“A long time after I left I said I felt brainwashed,” said Nora. “Maybe they caught my little bleeding heart, and I wanted to save the world. … I think that’s what hooked us, trying to save the world.”
This spring, the faltering promise of CEA as a planetary savior finally dominoed into AppHarvest. A Delaware-based creditor demanded the repayment of over $47 million, while a west coast investor, Equilibrium, alleged the company needed to repay over $66 million, about a third of the company’s $182 million debt, or risk foreclosure. A third creditor staged a mutiny, threatening to evict AppHarvest from its Berea farm.
By mid-July, Webb left his position as CEO, and the company paid almost $2.5 million to its four-man executive team, which included Webb in his short-lived demotion as chief strategy officer. A week later, on July 23, AppHarvest filed for bankruptcy in a Texas court for all 12 of its affiliated businesses. The next day, AppHarvest received notice from Nasdaq that the company’s stock would be delisted; stocks closed at $0.09 per share. Then, on September 29, Webb was fired “without cause.” His severance package included $125,000 plus health insurance coverage, paid out over six months. (At the time of this story’s publication, he still serves on the company’s board.)
These losses, while staggering and sudden, are not surprising to Bugbee, the plant scientist. To make CEA profitable, he said, human labor has to be replaced with robotics to lower the costs of repetitive tasks like planting and harvesting, which are easily automated.
“We want to believe there’s some magic bullet we’re going to discover and all these [climate] problems will be solved,” he added. “But as a scientist, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to say, ‘Wait a minute. This is not a magic bullet.’”
American policymakers, on the other hand, remain bullish on CEA, despite the recent failures.
“It is unfortunate that AppHarvest has had the challenges that it has. But we know that agritech is a big part of Kentucky’s future, and we need to be at the forefront of it,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s office wrote in an emailed statement attributed to the governor. “Regardless of who is leading the company or who owns the facility, I believe in the end, they will have a bright future; and there are a whole lot of jobs there, so we should all be rooting for it.”
For Nora, it took nine months after she quit to stop crying herself to sleep. Now, she works as a building services technician in Morehead. Other ex-AppHarvest employees are scattered around the town: Some ended up at Buffalo Wild Wings or assembly lines in nearby plastics, cabinet, and barrel stave factories. Mays became assistant manager at the Family Dollar store. Moore went to the Family Dollar Distribution Center down the street from the greenhouse, where a night shift can earn $19.75 an hour. Baxter, who’s been staying at a campground in her RV, which she calls the Dream Capture, is looking for work.
“Other jobs you quit them and you move on. This job I feel like you had to detox from, because after you quit you’re so afraid to say anything because you’re afraid AppHarvest will sue you,” said Nora. “I told my husband I’m tired of hiding from the big, bad AppHarvest. You did me wrong.”
Nora’s worst memory is of her birthday in June 2021, when she had to sweep shattered glass that fell from the greenhouse ceiling. The task triggered nightmares of glass panels that exploded and decapitated her, grow wires that electrocuted her, and tomato stakes that impaled her.
“Any way I could imagine dying in that greenhouse, I dreamt it,” Nora said. In the months before AppHarvest’s bankruptcy, before the facilities were sold, Nora said she felt like when she joined AppHarvest, she’d joined a cult.
“We dress alike, we’re told what to say, what to do, we’re always there, we didn’t have time with family and friends. Our family and friends were AppHarvest,” she said. “How did I not see this? That this was not a good place to be?”
A new national assessment of water and climate in the US, led by CU Boulder’s Liz Payton, cites some progress
According to the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5), climate change is intensifying rainfall and floods, deepening droughts and shifting weather patterns across the globe – threatening terrestrial freshwater supplies and water quality. These impacts are reportedly unequal, disproportionately affecting the most frontline populations in the US.
“Climate change will manifest through profound changes to the movement, amounts and timing of water,” said Payton, a water resources specialist in the CIRES-based Western Water Assessment, and lead author of the water chapter.
This story was originally published by Capital & Main and was republished with permission.
With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act last year, Congress and the administration of President Joe Biden made a colossal bet on nascent massive-scale technological solutions to the climate change crisis.
Together, the laws dedicated more than $100 billion to atmospheric carbon reduction, including grants, loans and tax credits for renewable energy projects; hydrogen hubs; electric vehicle fleets; and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, or CCUS. (Some prefer a simpler phrase: carbon capture, use and storage.)
It’s that last category that has excited politicians in hydrocarbon-rich Texas because it involves cashing in on a new round of federal subsidies to scale up an activity that oil producers have already been doing for a long time: pumping liquefied carbon gas into the ground.
With expanded federal tax credits for CCUS up for grabs, Texas wants to become the “global leader in carbon capture and sequestration,” in the words of state Sen. Kelly Hancock, a Republican who represents Tarrant County. But environmental advocates say the motivation of politicians like Hancock has nothing to do with fighting global warming and everything to do with harnessing federal incentives to drive a boom in industrial growth.
For decades, producers have been injecting liquefied carbon gas and other fluids deep underground in order to re-pressurize aging oil wells. The practice is called secondary recovery, or enhanced oil recovery, which enables a company to squeeze the last drops out of a nearly depleted well — like pumping up a nearly empty Super Soaker. Enhanced oil recovery is the primary “U” in the CCUS acronym. Producers claim that hydrocarbons produced using the technique are “net zero,” based on the controversial assumption that the carbon going into the ground — and, theoretically, remaining trapped there — cancels out whatever carbon emissions result from burning the extracted fuels.
The new federal incentives prioritize CCUS projects that would remove carbon gases from ambient air in an as-yet-unproven process called direct air capture and from major emissions sources, including power plants and industrial facilities, known as point-source capture. In either case, beneficiaries will need to guarantee permanent geological storage of captured carbon, either through enhanced oil recovery or through sequestration in special injection wells bored into saline formations thousands of feet under the Earth’s surface.
The scale of the Biden administration’s investment in CCUS is historic, but federal subsidies for the industry have been around for well over a decade. Congress created the 45Q tax credit in 2008 to spur investment in carbon storage as part of a multipronged effort to combat man-made climate change. Projects eligible for 45Q credits include Class VI wells — the ones used for carbon dioxide injection and permanent geologic storage in deep underground saline formations — and Class II wells used for enhanced oil recovery.
In the first decade of the 45Q program, the CCUS industry struggled to get off the ground. Congress boosted the dollar-per-ton amount of the 45Q credit in 2018, and then, in 2022, the program received a major shot in the arm with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Along with hiking up the value of the 45Q credit, the act drastically lowered eligibility requirements — reducing the volume of captured carbon at a qualifying facility by as much as 96 percent.
Expansion of the 45Q credit and lowering the bar to entry triggered “a bonanza around carbon removal,” according to Tara Righetti, Occidental Chair of Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Wyoming. The act also gave billions to the Department of Energy to use for loans for CCUS projects and other clean energy initiatives.
“Project developers are clamouring to respond to U.S. Department of Energy Funding Opportunity Announcements, tie up injection rights, and secure injection permits,” Righetti said in a January 2023 blog post. “In response, states have moved forward with efforts to assume regulatory authority for carbon sequestration and secure primacy for Class VI injection wells.”
The main difference between Class VI and Class II injection wells comes down to whether a well is used for permanent geologic carbon sequestration (Class VI) or some other purpose, such as wastewater disposal, enhanced oil recovery or temporary hydrocarbon storage (Class II). Primacy, as Righetti described it, refers to federally delegated regulatory authority over a category of injection wells. Class VI wells fall under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is meant to safeguard underground sources of drinking water, and are consequently subject to stricter siting and construction regulations than Class II wells. At present, the Texas Railroad Commission — the state’s oil and gas regulator, which has had no jurisdiction over railroads since 2005 — has primacy over Class II injection wells, but the EPA retains authority over Class VI wells.
Under the IRA’s expansion of 45Q, permanent geologic storage projects qualify for a significantly larger credit ($85 per ton) than utilization projects, including enhanced oil recovery ($60 per ton). Direct air capture projects, which remove ambient CO2 directly from the atmosphere, can receive $180 per ton for geologically stored CO2 and $130 per ton for captured and utilized CO2. In order to unlock the highest tiers of 45Q credits for permanent geologic storage and for direct air capture projects, Texas-based operators will need to drill many Class VI wells. But there’s a snag: The commission may still be years away from securing Class VI primacy, and the EPA’s own Class VI permitting timelines are glacial.
Nationwide, the EPA has approved just two Class VI facilities since the program began in 2010, and there are currently 109 applications in the backlog. Only two states, Wyoming and North Dakota, have secured Class VI primacy from the EPA. (Louisiana may receive primacy by the end of 2023.) That means the most remunerative tiers of the 45Q program are essentially blocked off by regulatory red tape. At present, any company that wants to build a Class VI facility in Texas faces a potentially yearslong federal permitting process.
Betting on the future boom in carbon capture projects, and eager to shorten permitting timelines, Texas is pressing ahead with its application to regulate Class VI wells by itself. The Railroad Commission has finished the pre-application phase for Class VI primacy and is awaiting EPA review before moving on to the formal application phase. “We hope our program will be able to streamline the process and allow for the timely issuing of Class VI permits,” Railroad Commission chief geologist Leslie Savage said in a July hearing.
Environmental advocates say the commission has not been a responsible regulator of the Class II program and should not be trusted with Class VI primacy. “If anybody is going to be permitting this kind of activity, it ought to be the EPA, and it’s OK if the EPA is moving slowly,” said Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, in a recent webinar about carbon capture. Commission Shift is a Laredo, Texas-based watchdog organization focused on reforming the Railroad Commission.
All of the 45Q tiers are intended to mitigate climate change. But in hearings about CCUS-related bills in the 2023 legislative session, politicians like Hancock “did not talk about climate change,” Palacios said. “They did not talk about the need for us to address extreme weather as a result of climate change, or biodiversity loss, or impacts on low income communities on the coast,” she said. “They talked about wanting to be able to compete and sell gas to Europe and make lots of money. Many of them talked about trying to make sure that CO2 never gets regulated as a pollutant and that there’s never a limit on CO2.”
It is a Texas-sized irony that billions in federal funds earmarked for fighting climate change may end up going to the same oil and gas companies whose future depends on the survival of a carbon-intensive global economy. Those funds stand to benefit a state with a governor, Greg Abbott, who refuses to use the phrase “climate change,” and with an oil and gas regulatory agency run by elected commissioners whose campaign coffers are stuffed with industry money, who have flirted with climate change denial and who have threatened to sue the federal government over attempts to regulate methane.
But for all their hostility to climate mitigation, greenhouse gas regulation, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies at home, these powerful Texas politicians know that certain image adjustments will be necessary for the industry to remain attractive to climate-conscious investors and foreign customers with increasingly strict clean energy policies.
The potential for explosive growth in the CCUS sector — fueled by federal incentives — could be the silver bullet they’ve been looking for: Expanding the CCUS sector to include enhanced oil recovery, which will help companies market their products as “net zero.”
There are at least two potential growth markets in CCUS that have politicians and industry players seeing dollar signs. The first is point-source carbon capture, which involves an industrial facility — a coal-burning power plant, for example — scrubbing a certain percentage of carbon directly from its stacks. The second is direct air capture, an unproven massive-scale technology that involves pulling ambient carbon from the atmosphere. In both cases, the captured carbon could be stored permanently underground or transported by truck or pipeline to another facility for storage or use in enhanced oil recovery or another industrial application. Environmentalists fear that companies could use 45Q credits to refine new and potentially lucrative technology, greenwash their images, and increase their profit margins at taxpayer expense, all without scaling back hydrocarbon production.
The projected size of the future CCUS market is enormous. Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, which is currently pursuing two DAC projects in Texas under a subsidiary called 1PointFive, estimates the CCUS industry will grow to $50 billion a year by 2030; ExxonMobil puts the figure at $4 trillion by 2050. As the nation’s largest oil and gas producers, Texas fossil fuel companies are well-positioned to tap into the windfall of 45Q credits delivered by the Inflation Reduction Act. There are already tens of thousands of Class II wells in the state, and the reduced barrier to entry will make 45Q a lifeline to smaller companies that might want to use enhanced oil recovery to prolong the viability of their currently producing wells.
As a map produced by Rice University’s Baker Institute shows, the deep underground geology of Texas is ideal for carbon storage, with saline aquifer and salt dome formations stretching across the Permian Basin from the Panhandle to the Mexican border and all the way down the Texas-Louisiana border, along the Gulf of Mexico and clear across the Eagle Ford Shale formation to the Rio Grande Valley. Oil and gas companies have already been injecting CO2 and fluids into smaller Class II wells for enhanced oil recovery and waste disposal in Texas for decades — and it’s the Railroad Commission’s light touch with regard to holding companies accountable for leaks, spills, and earthquakes related to those Class II wells that has environmentalists worried.
Commission Shift has published extensive reporting on the commission’s failure to adequately address the state’s constantly swelling list of orphaned, abandoned and inactive oil and gas wells, some of which are leaking vast quantities of contaminated water onto the surface or into adjacent groundwater reservoirs. The Environmental Defense Fund and Earthworks have repeatedly reported on the agency’s deficient approach to wasteful methane venting and flaring, despite having rules about when flaring is permissible and when it isn’t.
Palacios also expressed concern about commissioners’ recent approval of permits for new injection wells over the recommendations of staffers charged with carrying out technical review of the applications. Commission examiners had found that Oklahoma City-based company Lagoon Water Management, which was seeking approval to drill Class II waste disposal wells in Dawson County, “failed to prove the Proposed Disposal Wells are in the public interest,” because, according to the review, there was already sufficient disposal capacity in the area. Piñon Operating, an oil and gas producer with active wells in the same area where Lagoon wanted to put its wells, protested Lagoon’s applications on the grounds that additional disposal capacity was not needed, and that overpressurizing the affected formation could lead to migrations of fluids and hydrogen sulfide gas that could “cause higher drilling costs, loss of well bores, and ultimately, wasted oil and gas reserves.”
At a September 14 hearing, following a motion from Commissioner Wayne Christian, the commissioners rejected the examiners’ recommendations and approved Lagoon’s applications. Piñon Operating has filed a motion for a rehearing.
Asked for comment on the Lagoon permits, a spokesperson told Capital & Main that the commission “cannot comment on cases that are pending a final decision.”
Palacios said the commissioners’ decision to override the agency’s own examiners is something the EPA should take into consideration as it evaluates the state’s Class VI primacy application. “The EPA needs to understand that even if RRC’s technical staff seems like it will understand and seek to follow the Class VI CO2 injection well precautions,” Palacios said, “we have evidence that the railroad commissioners will disregard those recommendations and put Texas drinking water at risk.”