The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Hi, everyone.

I’m traveling this week, which means insanity and no time for doing anything, including keeping up with my blogs. HOWEVER, some weeks ago, one of my free-lance clients gave me an assignment near and dear to my heart–fuel economy and how the trucking industry is actually working to reduce its emissions. The piece I wrote for them has now been published on their website. So please, hop on over to my client’s website, where you can read my work in a brand-new context. And I’ll be back with an original post later this week or early next week. Thanks!

Click here to go to the article.

And as the Eagles said,

Take It easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy.


Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.




Climate Change and Evangelicals

This is the second part of a series on religion and climate change. The first part covered Catholicism. I’m going to cover all of the major–and some of the minor–religions in the United States. Feel free to comment if you know about how these issues play out in other countries.

It may seem strange to non-Christian readers, that I’m doing separate posts on different subtypes of Christianity. It seems strange to me that I have to, but Christians themselves often speak as though the different branches of Christianity were, in fact, separate religions. Notably, I have heard Protestants use constructions like “are you Christian or Catholic?” More important for our purposes, the different branches respond differently to the issue of climate change.

Some Definitions

Talking about Protestant Christianity and climate change is difficult because, in contrast to Catholicism, there is no central authority on doctrine (except the Bible itself which, rightly or wrongly, is obviously subject to multiple interpretations). True, the leadership of an individual denomination can decide on a doctrine and treat it as orthodoxy–Protestant churches are not necessarily democracies on matters of faith. But if somebody disagrees they can go to a different Protestant church, or even found a new one, without dropping out of the larger Protestant continuum.

By “Protestant continuum” I mean the variety of beliefs and practices encompassed by all Protestant churches everywhere. Outsiders tend to treat variations within that cloud as mere details, so, sometimes, do Christians themselves. One of my brothers-in-law was raised Methodist, “saved” in an evangelical denomination (I don’t know which one), attended a Methodist seminary, and now teaches adult Bible study at a church of another denomination (the rest of the family can’t remember which). On Christmas and Easter he returns to his parents’ Methodist church for services. Nobody seems to care, and he is not the only Protestant I have met who shifts denominations so fluidly. While in theory some Protestant churches may indeed have an orthodoxy and by its lights define other Protestant churches as apostate or even just not Christian, in practice individual Protestants have a wide freedom of religious choice. To discover what Protestants do and believe, we must therefor look to polls, not encyclicals.

The polls I have found divide Protestants into three groups: mainline, evangelical, and black. To be clear, “black Protestants,” in this usage, does not mean Protestant who happen to be black. In fact, all three groups have at least some black members and all three have at least some white members. But, in the United States, at least, the traditionally black churches comprise a distinct body of both doctrine and practice. We’ll start, today, with the evangelical branch.

Evangelical by Any Other Name

Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination or even a distinct group of denominations–although some denominations are generally considered evangelical. More properly, the evangelicals comprise a movement, and, like all movements, its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Generally, evangelicals can be said to share a few key doctrines, such as conversionism or Biblicalism, but not everybody who has those beliefs calls themselves evangelicals. It is difficult to even say for sure how many American evangelicals there are, although a third of the total population is a reasonable guess.

The terms evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist are all used interchangeably by many outsiders. Indeed, the word fundamentalist is used by some writers, such as Karen Armstrong, to refer to common elements among religious movements of multiple religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. By this definition, evangelical Christians are often fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally. These terms are not interchangeable for believers themselves, however; the term fundamentalist originated in an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the term evangelical originated in a separate religious movement that arose in the Midwest in opposition to fundamentalism during World War II.

What the Polls Say

Among self-described white evangelicals, 64% are “somewhat” or “very” unconcerned about climate change, more than any other American religious grouping (Hispanic Catholics are most concerned). 77% attribute recent natural disasters to the “End Times,” while only 49% attribute such disasters to climate change (obviously, some attribute disasters to both causes). Only 31% say humans are causing climate change, a dramatically lower percentage than for all other groups polled.

While some obviously accept climate change and care about it, the evangelical voice is largely one of climate denial or climate skepticism (yes, there is a difference) and the voice of American climate denial is largely an evangelical Christian voice.

There is serious political importance to evangelical belief because they vote in large numbers and they care about the beliefs of the people they vote for. That is, while climate change and evolution are political non-issues for many other Americans, both are important indicators for evangelicals; many simply will not vote for anyone who believes in either. Evangelicals are hardly unusual among Americans for doubting evolution or climate change, but because they vote on these issues and most other people vote, their vote matters more. White evangelicals were the largest voting bloc in many districts at the recent midterm elections and they overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. They are why the Republicans took the Senate.

Notice the implication here; if non-evangelicals tend not to care whether candidates accept global warming, that means that many people who do believe in climate change are voting for candidates who don’t. This is why the United States has a persistent climate denial Congress and why the long-hoped-for climate agreement to be finalized in Paris will not include a new, legally binding treaty. When Americans who do accept climate change do not vote about climate, or do not vote at all, the entire world sees its options narrow.

Why So Many Evangelicals Doubt Climate Science

There are important doctrinal reasons why evangelical Christians have trouble accepting the idea of human-caused environmental disaster. If God is omnipotent, then how could humans mess up Creation? Even the suggestion that we might seems sacrilegious to some. In this view, if the climate is changing than God must be changing it and He must have a good reason to do so. Further, if after the Resurrection the saved will live forever with Jesus Christ on a new and much-improved Earth where there is no suffering, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to this Earth. It’s temporary. Some evangelicals also believe that God gave the Earth to humans to use however they want–this being one interpretation of the concept of “dominion over the Earth.”

The problem is that other Christian groups share the same doctrinal underpinnings and yet have much higher rates of climate change acceptance. While evangelical climate skeptics and deniers may indeed list the above reasons for their doubt, something else is clearly going on.

The “something else” is culture and politics.

Basically, environmentalism and especially climate sanity have become identified in the popular American imagination with liberal politics and liberal values. Evangelicals are generally culturally conservative, so they are automatically suspicious of anything liberals espouse. It is simply not possible for everyone to become an expert in everything, so we all have to trust others to tell us what is right to some extent–everybody, liberals included, is inclined to believe the things that people they trust tell them. We also disbelieve people we dislike or distrust.

Part of the problem with the climate discussion in the United States is that this distrust-by-proxy is mutual. For every conservative who complains about Al Gore and the socially licentious, politically imperious liberal agenda, there is a liberal complaining about those racist, sexist red-necks who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Underneath the reflexive mud-slinging, both groups harbor–and sometimes share–entirely valid concerns about how the country is being run and how its culture is changing, neither group is willing to listen to the other. Climate change, as an issue, is a casualty of this breakdown in communications. It is not the only one–there are important concerns that liberals overlook, too.

Why Some Evangelicals Are Climate Activists

I am not myself evangelical (nor even Christian), but I have had many friends over the years who are. One of them was, at the time, the state ecologist of Delaware and he took climate change more seriously than the vast majority of my liberal friends (he accepted evolution as well, having heard of a pastor who claimed that the “days” in Genesis could have each encompassed millions of years). He took a lot of flak from his colleagues for being Christian and told me that he knew of Christians in the sciences who hide their religious identity for fear of professional discrimination and harassment.

He isn’t alone. Evangelical Christianity does not get much respect from the American mainstream. They are often wrongly assumed to be stupid or anti-intellectual because so many of them take the Bible literally. Evangelical environmentalists consequently often feel uncomfortable at best among liberal environmentalists and environmental scientists. They don’t feel welcome, and sometimes aren’t welcome. Many must also cope, simultaneously, with having their faith and their values questioned by other evangelicals, who suspect them of being turncoats.

Nevertheless, evangelical environmentalists do exist. Not only do they accept the science on the matter and feel concern for the same reasons other people do, but some see environmentalism as an important embodiment of their faith. The evangelical environmentalist groups I have encountered recently mostly describe responding to climate change as an extension of their Christian duty to other people, but I have, in the past, also heard environmental responsibility framed as another meaning of human dominion over the Earth. The idea is that God gave the Earth to humans to shepherd and take care of, not simply to use. A related concept is that God made the world, so for humans to wantonly damage it is disrespectful of God.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that American evangelical Christianity has a huge effect on environmental policy, both for good and for ill. Alongside evangelical climate skeptics–who are factually wrong on that one point but have much to say on other issues–there are scientists and activists who approach environmentalism as part of a sacred trust. Recently, self-described evangelicals have spoken up in support of the EPA’s new rules regulating carbon emissions, pressed Congress for legislative action on climate, and even encouraged President Obama to speak with the Pope on climate change.

We need these people.



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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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For All the Tea in China

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just made an historic agreement to dramatically cut carbon emissions for both countries!

Except that the agreement isn’t legally binding, would not reduce emissions enough to meet the IPCC’s recommendations, Mr. Obama has virtually no support from Congress, and the Chinese office of President is ceremonial. It’s complicated.

Basically, the agreement is excellent news and could represent a starting point for some truly critical work in the years ahead. But it is important to put the agreement in context, to understand how this starting point might be used as a foundation of progress. I also want to explore China’s climate politics a bit, since I have already explored America’s. Eventually, I want to do profiles of all the major climate players.

First, to be clear, while the Chinese Presidency is an almost purely ceremonial position, President Xi is not a mere figurehead. In China, it is possible for one person to hold several political offices simultaneously and Mr. Xi does. It’s the equivalent of a single American simultaneously serving as President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I don’t mean that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are each headed by the same person, because China’s government branches according to different principles than the American one does. I mean that China’s initial attempt to divide power so as to prevent to rise of another such as Mao Zedong has been effectively undone some time ago.

To someone used to the U.S. system, the Chinese government looks chaotic, despite the actual fact of its tight internal control. Part of the reason is that in Chinese politics personal relationships are primary and official title is secondary; it’s who you know that’s important. I have not been able to find information on whether President Xi faces substantial opposition at home or whether he has the political ties necessary to make the new policy stick. So far, it is a non-legally-binding promise only. But given Mr. Xi’s status as China’s ultimate authority and the fact that the Chinese government still controls much of that country’s economic development, he does have advantages that Mr. Obama does not.

Not that I wish the U.S. had a dictatorship–I wish our democratically elected Congress cared about climate. But that is another topic.

The deal was essentially President Obama’s idea. He and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated and pursued months of negotiations that concluded successfully almost literally at the last moment. But the Chinese government has been facing political pressure over the thick, dangerous smog blanketing much of the country because of its reliance on coal for energy. Many wealthy Chinese people even leave the country because the air is so bad. In recent years, China has invested heavily in clean, renewable energy, and regards such investment as a sound business strategy. Its government has everything to gain politically by literally clearing the air.

In brief, China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 (or sooner) and to shift to at least 20% non-fossil fuel energy sources, also by 2030. The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions 26-28% below what they were in 2005 by 2025, extending existing goals by almost half again. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. At least as important, the United States is a developed country while China is a developing country, meaning that the old deadlock of which type of economy should cut emissions first may be easing. Finally, both the U.S. and China have been intransigent on climate for a long time, now. Once we stop blocking the flow, further work on the subject is possible.

By the end of the current century, these agreements would result in about 20 billion tons less carbon dioxide going into the air every year, over a projected “business-as-usual” scenario. That’s about 10 billion tons better than existing U.S. and EU pledges. If other countries follow China’s lead by making similar pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions could start to slowly edge down in the next decade or two, bringing us to just under 40 billion tones per year by the end of the century.

Which is, of course, still way too much. We need to phase out fossil fuel use entirely well before the end of this century in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC emphasizes this point and they are hardly the only ones calling for a complete phase-out. But this is a beginning. If these deals can stick politically, they may pave the way for more aggressive reductions in the future. They’ll help get the ball rolling in terms of developing green energy infrastructures as well. These small but historic deals are a foot in the door of the future.

Predictably, the American Congressional leadership is on the attack. They charge that this deal will hurt the U.S. economy and that China will not have to change as much as the U.S. will. Neither charge is true. The U.S. could actually see an economic boost out of this, since new regulations will indirectly spur growth. Green energy tends to be better for the economy than fossil fuel, since it tends to require more employees per unit of energy–an equation that suggests why industry leaders are so dead-set against it–more jobs mean narrower profit margins. Unfortunately, truth is seldom important to those resisting climate sanity.

If this deal sticks, we have a chance for more and better deals in the future. If it does not, we might not. Mr. Xi more or less has China covered, for better or worse, but Mr. Obama needs the support of his people and he desperately needs a successor and a Congressional majority serious about climate change.

Support the new EPA rules. They are the primary instrument by which President Obama can hope to reduce American emissions and the political opposition to them is fierce. You can make an official comment in support of the rules through this link until the end of November. Continue to attend any climate demonstrations that come up–large marches do have real political impact, the bigger the better.

And please stay politically involved. Vote, next time you can.

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No News Isn’t Good News

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issues its long-awaited Synthesis Report last weekend and officially stated that we as a species need to get off fossil fuel, and soon. This is no surprise, of course. That we haven’t gotten off fossils already has nothing to do with any dearth of scientific clarity–it’s not like we’ve been sitting around waiting for this report before we take action. Instead, we have been delayed by political and cultural reluctance, and we are delayed by it still.

The news out of the polling places on Tuesday was not good.

Leaving aside whatever advantages the GOP may possess on other topics, the many Republican victories could be disastrous for climate. They have taken the Senate and increased their majority in the House and will almost certainly use that advantage to try to force President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They will increase their fight to invalidate Mr. Obama’s executive actions–including the EPA policies regulating carbon emissions–as illegal or unconstitutional. The United States will face the all-important climate conference next year with a legislature hostile to any progress at all. Our best hope may be that we just don’t lose ground.

How did this happen? In the races that I followed, the Republican candidates ran on an economic platform within which environmental regulation was implicitly recognized as part of the problem. There are all sorts of reasons why such an argument is disingenuous, not least of which being that environmental disaster–especially climate change–is extraordinarily bad for the economy. That other Republican candidates ran on an anti-Obama platform is a whole other complex topic.

In any case, the nightly news is full, not surprisingly, of post-election analysis. What isn’t on the news? The fact that hundreds of people just completed a walk across country–from LA to DC–and are now getting arrested for protesting outside the FERC building. For action on climate change.

The Great March for Climate Action was a mobile community demonstrating democratic processes, sustainable technology (they had their own solar panels for charging electronics), and non-violent protest. A core group of several hundred people walked the entire way, joined by others who walked with them a long way or a little. They stopped, here and there, for various climate-related events. In September they took a break, boarded a fleet of buses, and joined the People’s Climate March, in New York City. Then they took their buses back to their own route and kept marching. They covered about fifteen miles a day and camped at night. They arrived in Washington, DC on November 1st, as planned, and several of them went on to participate in a multi-day protest against the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), which they say “rubber-stamps” natural gas-related projects. FERC, for its part, claims that it is impossible for them to estimate the potential impact of these projects, and therefore they cannot say no to them, which certainly sounds like rubber-stamping to me.

That’s why they’re getting arrested –for blocking traffic in front of the FERC offices.

I wrote about the Great March very briefly when they started, listing it among several large and fairly dramatic climate-related protests that got no mainstream media coverage at all. And, unfortunately, the Great March has continued being ignored by the media. My husband is a current events junky and hadn’t heard of them until now, when I asked him about it. The group’s own website includes a list of media notices (including, I’m rather gratified to note, a link to this blog!) but none of them are mainstream national news outlets. Which is insane–if a group that size had walked that far for fun they might almost have gotten more attention, simply as a human interest story.

I wrote about the march again, in conjunction with my coverage of the People’s Climate March, but while I was concerned that the latter might be ignored by the media–and was prepared to take steps to combat such willful ignorance, if it happened–I did not appreciate that the former might be ignored as well. Instead, while I did try to get one of the organizers to write us a guest post (something that ultimately fell through), I largely ignored the Great March as well.

And that’s how candidates who ignore climate change win. I don’t mean that my editorial decisions themselves allowed the Republicans to take the Senate–I don’t have that kind of readership, alas–but that the collective silence of the media on the vast majority of climate-related protest largely keeps the environment out of serious public discourse in this country. Political strategy is often less a matter of winning the game than of deciding what the rules of the game are. In my own state, Republican Larry Hogan won the gubernatorial race by a large margin (he captured every county in Maryland except those immediately around Washington DC) even though ours is usually a solidly blue state. He did so by repeating, over and over again, that he would rescue Maryland from the economic disaster the outgoing Democratic administration had caused. His opponent, Anthony Brown, is the outgoing Lt. Governor. In point of fact, the O’Malley/Brown administration caused no such thing, but Mr. Hogan succeeded in defining the terms of the conversation and so he won the race.

When the media ignores climate, regardless of why they do so, the resulting illusion that climate isn’t important to Americans allows candidates to ignore the issue and win anyway–because the frame of the conversation excludes the entire topic. Much of Maryland is coastal and low-lying, and much of the state is rural. Climate change is very much relevant to Maryland’s economy, yet Mr. Hogan’s economic message utterly ignored it.

We cannot afford to keep silent on this issue, nor can we afford to be silenced. Hundreds of people just walked thousands of miles for climate change and some are now being arrested for it. Contact your news outlets–newspapers, TV shows, radio new programs–and insist that they cover these stories.




The President’s Plan, Part 2

In a previous post, I discussed President Obama’s new plan to tackle climate change. Than plan does not go far enough, but it does go farther than we’ve gone before and is an important initial step in the right direction. The centerpiece of the plan is a proposed set of EPA rules that would regulate and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

However, the plan also goes farther than some people would like. The coal industry itself as well as Congresspeople from districts where coal is a major employer are fighting the new regulations and there is a real chance they could win. That must not happen; if political leaders do not get the support they need to fight climate change now, they might not try again for a long time.

Last post I encouraged readers to comment on the proposed rules and to talk to their Congresspeople. Now, I’m following up by explaining what the EPA’s rule-making process is, how these rules came to be proposed in the first place, and HOW readers can comment

How the EPA Works

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a body within the Executive Branch of the United States Government. The head of the EPA is not a cabinet-level position because Congress has refused to make it so, but since President Nixon created the agency most presidents have seated the head with the cabinet.

As a part of the Executive Branch, the EPA serves to execute those laws that fall within its area of responsibility. The laws Congress passes are typically too vague to be enforced, so one of the things the EPA does is to make rules that fill in the necessary detail. For example, if Congress says it is illegal to pollute, the EPA gets to decide which chemicals at what concentrations count as pollution.

Because the EPA only makes rules for laws that have already passed, proposed rules do not need further Congressional approval–although Congress can influence EPA activities by manipulating its budget. The EPA does consider public opinion, and every proposed rule is published to the Federal Register so that the public can examine it. After a comment period (which is not always the same length), the EPA alters (or sometimes withdraws) the rule so as to take public opinion into account before adding the rule to the Code of Federal Regulations.

Where the Carbon Dioxide Regulations Came From

The EPA can regulate air pollutants because Congress–by passing the Clean Air Act–said it can. However, usually we think of pollution as some kind of poison and carbon dioxide is non-toxic. Very high concentrations of CO2 can kill by displacing oxygen, but basically the stuff is inert, one of the safest substances around. So, initially, the EPA didn’t bother to regulate it. During the Bush Administration, the Agency specifically refused to regulate CO2, arguing that it did not count as a pollutant and therefore was not under the EPA’s authority.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts vs. the EPA, that CO2 could indeed count as a pollutant if it was dangerous. The Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide can endanger public health or the environment and, two years later, the EPA admitted that, yes, CO2 is harmful.

CO2 is harmful because it is a greenhouse gas and is currently warping our climate and acidifying our oceans.

That finding means that the EPA can and must regulate carbon dioxide in order to protect the American people. Unfortunately, there is no way to burn fossil fuels for energy without releasing carbon dioxide. That’s the simple chemistry of the situation. The fossil fuel-based American economy is now on a collision course with the government’s duty to protect the nation, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for any political leader. Of course, the EPA didn’t create the problem–it simply noticed and admitted a problem that had existed in plain sight for decades.

However, there is some low-hanging fruit the EPA can pick. The more efficient a power plant is, the more power it can produce for the same amount of fuel–and hence the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions. A good place to start is therefore by insisting that power plants become more efficient, and that is what the EPA is doing. It has already set high standards for any new plants, but most of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants are decades old and very inefficient. According to the new rule, these facilities will have to improve (or close).

The rule primarily effects coal-fired plants, but some natural gas-fired power plants may also have to upgrade.

How Will the New Rule Work?

The rule sets emissions targets that states can meet by requiring power-plant upgrades, by switching to natural gas-fired plants (which tend to emit less CO2 than coal-fired plants), or by focusing on sustainable energy sources and improved efficiency. The EPA will finalize the new rule next year and, after that, the states will then have a year to figure out what strategy works best for them. If any states do not come up with their own plan, the EPA will do it for them.

Do the Objectors Have a Point?

Primarily, it is the coal industry objecting to the new rules. This is not surprising. Industries don’t like being regulated because regulations make business more expensive, at least initially. However, there is no inalienable right to make as much money as possible. When a business practice or industrial process is harmful, it is right and proper that the law step in and do something about it. In one sense, some regulations are actually very good for businesses; business leaders who choose to pay extra for a good cause often cannot compete with those who are not so scrupulous. Regulation lowers the playing field so that no one has to choose between doing the right thing and staying afloat.

But there are also concerns that the new rule could cost jobs or damage the American economy as a whole. These kinds of concerns are sympathetic but do not always have much basis in fact. In this case I do not know whether the concerns are well-founded, but any harm that might be caused by winding down the coal industry is dwarfed by the harm that not addressing climate change would bring. Consider the tens of thousands of extra people flooded in Superstorm Sandy’s surge because of sea level rise due to global warming–and how a similar storm in another densely populated area, such as Boston, is only a matter of time. Consider that heat waves already kill more Americans than all other forms of natural disaster combined–plus the many more people every year year who die from other causes that heat makes worse.. I could go on.

The reason we have a government to begin with is so that we have some process whereby we can do difficult, painful things for the greater good of the country as a whole. The bottom line is that if we address climate change, we can probably afford, as a nation, to compensate the losses of the coal industry in some way. We cannot afford the losses unaddressed global warming would bring.

So, How Do We Get Involved?

Contact the EPA and comment in support of the proposed rule regulating carbon dioxide. Here is a link to detailed instructions on how to do so. They accept comments through their website, by email, by regular mail, by fax, and by hand-delivered note (really!).

Then, contact your Senator and Representative and tell them that you support action on climate change and will vote anyone out of office who attempts to block or de-fund the EPA’s regulation.  If your state is considering taking its own action against the regulation, contact your state officials and tell them to stop or you will turn them out of office.

And mean it.

Our chance of winning this without the support and leadership of the government of the United States of America is very small.


The President’s Plan, Part 1

Early in June of this year, President Obama announced, to great fanfare and controversy, his new plan to fight climate change. As he had promised, the plan depends not on Congressional action (which is not forthcoming) but on direct administrative action.

The White House website describes the plan, but not in very reader-friendly terms. Although the page is full of lots of charts and graphics and links, it is hard to see just what, exactly, Mr. Obama has done.

Rather than summarizing the plan as a plan, the website is a lecture on the problem of climate change and the progress the Administration has made towards its goals. Some of this progress includes the steps of the President’s new plan. Other progress bulletins involve events that are several years old or not directly Mr. Obama’s doing.

For example, since he took office, the United States has tripled its wind generation of electricity and increased its use of solar ten times over. That is worth celebrating, and President Obama’s policies may have helped, but he could hardly have ordered it.

As a public service, I’ve waded through the morass.

The cornerstone of the plan, and the only component actually announced in June, is a new set of proposed rules through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulating and limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. This proposal builds on earlier proposed rules to regulate and limit emissions from any future coal-fired plants.

More on these rules shortly.

But the President has referred to executive actions (plural) in discussing his plan. The White House website does, indeed, boast of several other points to the plan, but these took place earlier this year or late last year.

These other actions address vehicle fuel efficiency and energy infrastructure, electrical efficiency, electricity from renewable sources, national resiliency in the face of climate changes already occurring, and plans to work with other countries to reduce emissions abroad.

Here is my summary of the Administration’s domestic action steps over the past year towards combating climate change, organized chronologically:

  • September, 2013, the EPA proposed carbon dioxide regulations for new coal-fired power plants.
  • December, 2013, the President signed a memorandum directing the Federal government to buy a certain minimum of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
  • December, 2013, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) committed money to improve energy efficiency and renewable energy use in rural areas.
  • January, 2014, the President signed a memorandum creating a Quadrenniel Energy Review (QER) process. This means that a group of high-level officials will communicate with various experts and stakeholders about energy and submit a report to the President every four years.
  • February, 2014, the President told the EPA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles. This follows on earlier fuel efficiency increases.
  • March, 2014, the Administration announced a Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions, largely through preventing leaks and unnecessary venting from pipelines, wells, and landfills.
  • May, 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) said it will support training programs through community colleges for future solar industry worker
  • June, 2014, the EPA proposed carbon dioxide regulations for existing coal-fired power plants.
  • Since June, 2014, the DOE has raised a number of standards relating to the efficiency of electrical appliances and equipment.

It’s hard to avoid being underwhelmed with a few of these steps. The new QER process sounds fancy, after all, but it’s only a report. Don’t we have enough reports? Likewise, virtually none of these steps will go into full effect immediately. They aim to cut emissions in various ways by some future date. The EPA’s new rules are only in the proposal stage.

However, this is the President acting on his own without Congress, a condition that, by design, renders the American president almost powerless. Further, even these minimal steps–chiefly the new EPA rules–are being fought, tooth and nail, by the fossil fuel industry. This may be all we can get right now, and it is far from certain we will even get this.

On the other hand, the President’s plan, if it is allowed to stand, could do a lot of good.

The EPA’s new rules should reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by 30%, compared to 2005 levels. That does not count reduction due to regulation of new plants–a complication I won’t touch either, though it is probably significant.

What does this 30% mean?

According to the Washington Post, existing power plants contribute 38% of US carbon dioxide production and are therefor the single largest source of American CO2 (transportation comes in second). Carbon dioxide, in turn, accounts for 82% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions–some of the others, such as methane and CFCs have a more powerful greenhouse effect, but there is so much less of them that carbon dioxide is still the dominant problem.

So, we’re looking at removing 30% of 38% of 82%. Roughly speaking, that works out to almost one tenth of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions which Mr. Obama has turned off with the stroke of a pen.

I don’t have the numbers to calculate the results of his other actions, but most of them involve reducing demand for electricity and gasoline, thus hitting the first and second largest sources of domestic carbon dioxide again. The Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions could also be very significant, given how powerful that methane’s greenhouse effect is.

The United States is one of the most serious global-warmers in the world, so a major reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions is significant on the global scale.

Perhaps just as important, for the US to reduce its emissions gives it the moral credibility to ask China and India to do the same–countries that are just now industrializing and are understandably reluctant to give up their turn at the wealth that using fossil fuel brings.

Could the United States do more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Yes–and indeed, it must do more, and soon. But there is a huge amount of political and economic weight being thrown into the US doing nothing at all.

Do not forget that one of the reasons the President is about to be sued by Congress is his action on climate change (more particularly, his attempt to use his own authority to get around Congress’ inaction on the subject).

Climate change mitigation is a dead issue in some Congressional districts, especially those where the coal industry is economically important. It’s to the point that, in some races, supporting carbon dioxide regulation is something mudslinging candidates can accuse each other of.

(Yes, regulating coal plants could cost some communities money they can’t afford to lose, but doing nothing about climate change would be far worse for far more people)

Congressional Republicans are currently trying  to stop the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide, both through an appropriations bill and through additional legislation.

The regulations themselves are still only proposals. The EPA must go through an internal review process before finalizing the rules. The public comment period for the regulation of new power plants has closed. The comment period for the newer rule, the one regulating emissions from existing power plants, is still open.

This means that there are multiple fronts along which the coal industry–or politicians who simply dislike anything Mr. Obama does on principle–can attempt to defeat the regulations.

They can comment, as members of the public.

They can lobby for passage of bills to undermine the rules, or, more broadly, the whole EPA.

They can attempt to ensure that no climate-friendly politician ever gets elected again, so that when Mr. Obama leaves office, his successors can undo his work.

But, the American people can respond by the same means.

Comment on the proposal. Contact your Congresspeople. Support environmentalist candidates and VOTE.

If President Obama’s plan sticks–and if it receives widespread public support–there might be more good progress on the way later. If not…this might be our last chance to get started.