On November 9th, the world received news of two unfortunate climate milestones. First, the World Meteorological Association reported that in 2015, the average global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since human measurements began. The current CO2 concentration represents a 43% increase over pre-industrial levels of roughly 280 ppm, and a 14% increase over 350 ppm — what some deem the highest concentration at which we can maintain “climate safety.”
Several hours later, the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia and the U.K. Met Office announced that average global temperatures throughout the first 9 months of 2015 were 1.02˚C above the historic average. This means that the world is now more than halfway to reaching the 2˚C warming level, the threshold at which scientists warn human society will face irreparable damage. Stephen Belcher, the director of the Met Office, said of the milestone, “This is the first time we’re set to reach the 1°C marker and it’s clear that it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory.”
Along with these frightening reminders that climate change continues to worsen, a World Bank report, published on November 10th, reminded us who is most threatened by these worsening conditions – the world’s poor. The report, entitled, “Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty,” concluded that crop failure, natural disasters, waterborne diseases and other impacts of climate change will cause 100 million people to fall into poverty by the year 2030.
Stéphane Hallegatte, a senior economist with the World Bank’s Climate Change Group and co-author of the report, said, “Climate change is an additional threat to our objective of ending poverty. Poor people are already very vulnerable to climate-related shocks, and these climate-related shocks already keep them in poverty. Climate change will make a lot of these shocks more frequent and more intense, and this creates a threat.” With less than one month until 195 nations are set to gather in Paris to finalize a highly anticipated international climate agreement, the countries most susceptible to climate-related shocks continue to speak out.
On November 11th, the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a collection of 43 nations brought together by their shared vulnerability to a warming planet, released a statement demanding that warming be limited to 1.5˚C, rather than the current goal of 2˚C. A press release from the CVF claims that 106 countries, more than half of the nations participating in the negotiations, have put their support behind the 1.5˚C goal. However, with the news of average global temperatures officially passing 1˚C in 2015, we must unfortunately question whether a 1.5˚C goal is merely a political statement or an actually feasible goal?
Regardless of what warming limit the Paris deal ultimately aims for, momentum towards the negotiations continues to grow. On November 10th, Saudi Arabia became the 158th nation to submit their climate action plan to the UN in preparation for the negotiations. While some have criticized the plan for being too vague, the fact that Saudi Arabia — a nation that is home to 16% of the world’s oil reserves (second only to Venezuela), and that earns 80% of all budget revenues through the sale of petroleum — set any goal acknowledging the need to decarbonize the global economy, is tremendously significant.
To further emphasize the significance of Saudi Arabia’s climate action plan, one must consider all the actions they’ve taken in the past to prevent global collaboration on climate change. Climate Home reports that in 2009, Saudi Arabian negotiators purposefully undermined climate science to prevent the development of an international deal; in 2013, Saudi leaders fought, unsuccessfully, to remove any mention of climate change from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals; and as recently as April 2015, the Saudi government refused to agree to mitigate HFC emissions (an extremely potent greenhouse gas) at any point over the next 100 years.
In the past, Christiana Figueres, chair of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, has said of the Saudis, “[they] are sitting on a vast reserve of very cheap oil. Can you blame them for trying to protect that resource and that income for as long as they can? I don’t blame them. It’s very understandable.”
However, with the submission of their climate action plan this week, it is clear that the tides have begun to change for the large middle eastern state. Not only have they submitted a climate action plan, but they have launched an entire PR campaign in support of the Paris negotiations, featuring a website counting down the days till the conference begins. One reason for the Saudi’s change of heart might be the recent publishing of a study in Nature Climate Change, which projects that temperature increase in the Persian Gulf will make the area entirely inhospitable for human life by 2100.
Or perhaps the Saudis caught an early glimpse at the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2015 World Energy Outlook, released on November 10th, which painted a pretty picture for the future of global clean energy. Among the highlights, the IEA reported that renewable energy accounted for roughly half of all new installed power in 2014, and that renewables are now second only to coal as the world’s largest source of electricity generation. By 2040 the IEA projects that renewables will provide 13% more electricity than coal, and will be supported by cumulative global investments of $7.4 trillion.
If not that, maybe the Saudis are just trying to find a way to outcompete the US, which has recently overtaken the oil empire as the world’s number one producer of petroleum. If that’s the case, Saudi Arabia will need to act fast. On November 5th, NextGen Climate, the organization led by billionaire climate activist, Tom Steyer, released a report in collaboration with ICF International, which found that if the US lowers emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, it could add nearly 2 million clean energy jobs, and grow its GDP by $290 million, a 0.9% increase over current projections.
One particular US clean energy industry that showed tremendous promise this week is offshore wind. In Europe, there are already 2,488 installed offshore wind turbines, but in the US not a single one has been installed. However, that may soon change. This week, 344,000 acres off the coast of New Jersey were auctioned to wind developers; DONG Energy, the largest offshore wind developer in Europe, pitched a 1,000 MW wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard; and a Seattle-based company proposed a 1,000 MW offshore project in Northern CA. These events all come in addition to the first US offshore wind farm breaking ground this summer off the coast of Rhode Island.
In the end, it does not matter what reason caused the Saudis to take climate change seriously. The only thing that does matter is that as CO2 concentrations, and global temperatures continue to rise to unprecedented levels, nations of all characteristics, big and small, rich and poor, oil-dependant and non oil-dependent, and so on, are finally stepping up to the plate. All we can hope for in Paris is that they don’t strike out.
On August 3, 2015 President Barack Obama announced the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long awaited, finalized Clean Power Plan (CPP), which, under the authority of the Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 111(d), regulates carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. This announcement represents the first time that the United States has placed limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants, which are the nation’s largest source of emissions, accounting for 31 percent of our GHG footprint.
This Friday, the historic rule was finally published in the Federal Register, and within the day, 26 states had filed lawsuits against it. While the Administration touts the CPP as the most significant U.S. action against climate change ever taken, West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, argues, “The Clean Power Plan is one of the most far-reaching energy regulations in this nation’s history.” Morrisey’s state, and others that are heavily dependent on coal, claim that the CPP will devastate the US economy. However, predictions regarding the impact of this rule are all over the place. Some studies have shown it will hurt the economy, create a net job loss, and raise electricity prices for American consumers, while others, have shown the exact opposite.
With the politically loaded nature of these studies, it is hard to discern truth, but perhaps there is some hidden in each side’s argument — only time will tell. However, the environmental impact of this regulation is not up for debate. Beyond the significant emissions reductions, the CPP’s greatest environmental benefit is in the strong signal it sends to the global community: that the US, the world’s greatest historic GHG emitter, is finally getting serious about climate change. As the world prepares to create a strong international deal on climate in Paris this December, the importance of this signal cannot be understated.
Though, with 26 states challenging the rule in court, opponents are clearly doing everything they can to undermine that signal. Unsurprisingly, Republican presidential candidates have also jumped on the bandwagon of those working to delegitimize the Administration’s efforts. Marco Rubio released his energy plan this week, “Powering the New American Century,” in which he writes, “Without question, the Obama Administration’s mandate for existing power plants is one of the most expensive and costly regulations ever created . . . As president, I will stop this massive, illegal mandate that will raise costs for Americans.” Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal have included similar statements in their energy plans as well, while nearly all other candidates have agreed informally.
These regressive actions from US states and Republican presidential candidates are completely ignorant to the impact that climate change is already having, and will continue to have, in developing nations. Ethiopia is currently experiencing its worst drought in over a decade, 8.2 million Ethiopians are in need of food assistance, and with 80% of the population working in agriculture, many citizens are struggling economically, as well. The UN predicts that by 2016, 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid. With a warmer climate, droughts such as these will plague the nation with greater frequency. In northern Pakistan, temperatures have increased 1.9˚C over the past century, causing glacial melt and severe heat waves, which threaten the country’s freshwater resources, food security, and public health.
Many other nations across the world are suffering because of climate change, and increasingly, they are calling out for the developed world to help them respond to this problem they did little to create. Recently the V-20 group, a collection of 20 nations highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, was created to advocate for the needs of the world’s poor. Cesar Purisima, Secretary of Finance of the Philippines, says of the group, “Unified in our vulnerability, the economic threats and difficulties arising from climate change, and a heightened sense of urgency on the issue, we stand together on the front lines of a battle we most certainly cannot afford to lose.”
While many in the US are trying to prevent global climate equality by fighting progressive actions like the CPP, others throughout the world are recognizing and trying to meet the needs of groups like the V-20. Climate aid to developing nations has been a big topic in international climate negotiations over the past decade, and will play a crucial role in crafting an international climate deal in Paris this December. However, many poor nations have expressed anger over the most recent draft of the Paris deal.
Nozipho Joyce Mxakato-Diseko, speaking as a representative of the 130 developing nations involved in the negotiations, stated, “We find ourselves in a position where in essence we are disenfranchised,” going on to compare the current draft to South African apartheid. In addition, a group of African nations said of the draft, it “cannot be used as a basis for negotiation, as it is unbalanced, and does not reflect the African Group positions, and crosses the group’s redlines.” One of the biggest issues with the draft is money. Developed nations have committed to provide $100 billion annually to developing nations by 2020 through the Green Climate Fund, but they refuse to make any commitments following that year.
While agreeing on parameters for global climate finance is a challenging task, it has not prevented action from individual entities. Two business giants, Google and Apple, have taken it upon themselves to encourage clean energy in developing nations. On October 20, Google announced that they will invest in the largest African wind farm, a 310 MW project located in Kenya. This comes in addition to Google’s 2013 investment of $12 million in the largest African solar plant, a 96 MW project in South Africa. The following day, on October 21, Apple announced it was working to install 2.2 GW of solar power and other renewable energy in China.
Also on the 21st, Britain signed an agreement with Nigeria and Sierra Leone to launch the Energy Africa Alliance, “a global campaign to bring solar power to the 620 million people on the continent who must still use kerosene, candles and wood to light their homes and cook.” 12 other African nations are expected to join the alliance shortly. Thus far, Britain hasn’t actually offered any funds, but has pledged to “use its offices throughout Africa to help cut red tape, unlock new sources of finance and promote policies to expand household-level solar electricity.”
On October 22, and despite their struggles with the CPP domestically, the Obama Administration announced the continuation of the US – Pakistani Clean Energy Partnership, which has provided over $1 billion in clean energy financing to Pakistan since 2009. According to a White House Fact Sheet, the project’s continuation will “add at least 3,000 megawatts (MW) of clean power generation infrastructure to Pakistan’s national electricity system, benefitting 30 million Pakistanis.”
In the face of short sighted and singularly minded actions of those in the US who oppose efforts to tackle climate change, Obama has demonstrated a unique ability and willingness to utilize existing laws and new executive actions to develop programs like the Clean Power Plan, and to provide international climate aid to struggling nations like Pakistan. The President’s ability to forge forward in addressing one of the world’s greatest challenges, despite opposition at every step in the road, is admirable, and the reason that world leaders like French President François Hollande have commented, “We have to do as if President Obama were here forever.
This past Tuesday was the first Democratic presidential debate, and in stark contrast to the first two Republican debates, candidates were eager to demonstrate their commitment to clean energy and to tackling the threat of climate change. CNN only asked one question on the topic — an improvement from their 2012 debate in which the topic was never mentioned — but, candidates found other means to bring it into the conversation.
Four of the five presidential hopefuls mentioned climate change in their opening statement, with the former Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb — who often seemed more fit to share a stage with Trump and the gang — as the only exception. Throughout the debate, O’Malley frequently touted his plan to attain 100% of America’s energy from renewable sources by 2050; Clinton claimed “I have been on the forefront of fighting climate change,” a statement some have taken issue with; and Chaffee smiled awkwardly, as he did for most of the night, while he listed the coal industry as his number one political enemy.
Climate change’s biggest moment of the night belonged to self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, Bernie Sanders. Each candidate was asked what they believe is the greatest threat facing America today, and all but Sanders responded with issues like the spread of ISIS, a rising China, or a nuclear Iran. Sanders, in contrast, stated, “The scientific community is telling us: if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be inhabitable. That is a major crisis.”
For those not exceedingly aware, or accepting, of climate science, that response is certain to raise a few eyebrows. For instance, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reacted on Twitter by stating, “They believe climate change is a greater threat than Islamic extremism, that a sunburn is worse than a beheading. It’s nonsense! #DemDebate.” So, let’s ask the question: Why would Bernie Sanders say that climate change is the greatest threat facing America today? What is the scientific community telling us? What has it told us just this week?
Firstly, this week, scientists have once again reaffirmed that human-caused climate change is in fact happening. The Japan Meteorological Agency reported that this past September was the hottest on record, 0.9˚ F warmer than the recorded average for the month from 1981-2010. This finding follows a trend of data that is making it increasingly clear that 2015 will be the hottest year in recorded history. In fact, NASA reports that there is a 93% scientific certainty that 2015 will be the warmest year on record, overtaking 2014 which was 1.24˚ F above the long term average. This means that 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century. Knowing that climate change is not a “hoax,” we can now assess what impact rising temperatures will have on the planet.
Continually, one of the biggest issues facing the human race is how to feed a rapidly increasing global population, and the world’s oceans play a critical role in addressing that issue. The World Health Organization reports that “about a billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal proteins,” and that, ”about 20% of the world’s population derives at least one-fifth of its animal protein intake from fish, and some small island states depend almost exclusively on fish.”
With that context in mind, a new study published this week warns that climate change may lead to a collapse of the world’s marine food chains. By conducting a meta-analysis of 632 oceanic experiments from across the world, scientists determined that ocean acidification and warming are causing a global decline in marine species diversity and abundance. This finding comes on the heels of a study published last week, which reported that in 2015, climate change will cause a mass die-off of one of the Earth’s most important marine species, coral. Coral reefs make up less than 0.1 percent of the ocean’s total area, but yet a quarter of all fish species, and over a million marine species total use reefs for habitat. Climate change, along with other threats like overfishing and pollution, are creating serious cause for concern over the world’s fisheries.
However, not only are the oceans warming, acidifying and decreasing in biodiversity — they are also rising. A number of studies published this week reported on the increasing threat of rising sea levels. Under current emissions trajectories, scientists, publishing their work in the journal Nature Geoscience, have predicted a doubling of the rate of ice melt in Antarctica by the year 2050, and warn that by the year 2100, the entire continent could become destabilized, leading to eventual complete ice shelf collapse. If the entire ice shelf were to collapse, it could lead to 200 feet of sea level rise across the world.
Another study calculated the extent to which U.S. cities and municipalities will be impacted by rising seas in high and low emissions scenarios. In a high emissions scenario, 26 million American homes will be inundated by sea level rise, and roughly 1,500 cities and municipalities would have over half of their residents displaced. Among those 1,500, 21 contain over 100,000 citizens. The study’s lead scientist, Benjamin Strauss of Climate Central, put the findings bluntly, “If we don’t cut emissions, we’re talking about losing American land [that’s] home to more people than live in any state, except for California and Texas. Home to more people than the state of Florida and New York.”
Issues like increasing food scarcity and global sea level rise are creating international concern over the growth in numbers of “climate refugees” — individuals that are forced to leave their homes due to the impacts of climate change. Cognisant of this growing issue, the governments of 110 nations gathered in Geneva this past week to discuss ways of addressing the needs of refugees displaced by natural disasters, including those exacerbated by climate change. This conference came at a very pertinent time, as people and governments across the world are drawing a connection between the 11 million Syrian refugees and the impacts of climate change.
Specifically, it is argued that a record setting drought in Syria, worsened by climate change, caused 1.5 million farmers to abandon their homes and seek work in already overcrowded cities. Once there, they became angered that the government was doing little to help them, and as more people continuously entered the cities, frustrations grew higher, and protests began. At this point, the unstable government began attacking the protesters, ultimately leading to the present day’s situation. As evident in this situation, the impacts of climate change have the ability to further destabilize sensitive regions of the world, and for this reason, the US Department of Defense has declared climate change a threat to national security.
Clearly, the impacts of climate change go much further than “sunburn,” but thank you for your insight Mike. In reality, climate change has the ability to decrease global food security, melt the antarctic ice sheet, causing millions of Americans and others across the world to lose their homes, and to increase international conflict. For these reasons alone (and there are many others, too) climate change is certainly an issue that should be considered as one of the greatest threats facing our country. Thank you, Bernie, for having the courage to say so.
(It should be noted that while Senator Sanders has spoken passionately about climate change on the campaign trail, he has yet to release a plan for what he would actually do as President to address this issue. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have both done so.)
A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that across the globe, the price of clean energy is dropping and is becomingly increasingly competitive with fossil fuel powered electricity. The report compared the levelized cost of electricity (LCoE) of different energy sources around the world in 2015, a metric that assesses the total cost of power generation per unit produced. By analyzing roughly 55,000 energy projects, Bloomberg found that from the first to the second half of 2015, the global LCoE of onshore wind dropped $2 and now sits at $83 per megawatt-hour (mWh), while solar photovoltaics dropped an impressive $7, now sitting at $122 per mWh.
Seb Henbest, a contributor to the report commented on the findings, “You start to go from a world where renewables are expensive, to a world where renewables are actually cheap. And that’s very meaningful.” However, how competitive renewables are in comparison to fossil energy depends on the location of the project. On average, the LCoE of coal and gas is $75, and $82 per mWh in the Americas, but jumps to $105 and $118 in Europe, respectively. In these regions, and in Europe especially, renewables are becoming more cost competitive, but the gap is still significant in some nations. In China, coal costs $44 per mWh, whereas wind is $77 and solar is $109.
While the LCoE is an important metric to consider, it must be noted that it does not take into account any of the social or environmental costs associated with electricity generation. For instance, the LCoE does not take into account the public health costs of air pollution in China that is 20x worse than the legal limits, or the environmental (and economic) costs of expansive coral bleaching. Without this context, one might wonder, why would China pursue renewables over coal when the cost is more than double? In reality, China and other nations in all regions of the world are very deeply considering the social and environmental costs of electricity generation, and numerous events this week made that clearly evident.
In Asia, China announced a 30 percent increase to it’s goal for new solar installations in 2015. The economic superpower, both the world’s greatest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter and largest solar market, will install an additional 5.3 gigawatts (GW) this year on top of the previous national target of 17.8 GW. This comes as China hopes to attain 15 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources by the year 2020. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates announced they will invest $35 billion in clean energy (including nuclear) by the year 2021.
In Europe, Scotland met it’s goal of developing 500 megawatts (MW) of community solar capacity earlier than expected. The goal was initially set for 2020, but in 2015, Scotland already has a capacity of 508 MW installed. Also in Europe, Germany, committed $2.25 billion to India in support of clean energy projects. In Africa, Kenya continued development on an ambitious 310 MW wind farm, the largest in the continent. When complete in 2017, this wind farm will represent one sixth of Kenya’s installed electrical capacity.
Separately, these surpassed goals, monumental new projects, and large financial commitments in support of clean energy are inspiring, but when viewed together as components of a thriving global movement to revolutionize our energy infrastructure, they’re even more impressive. In fact, this week the International Energy Agency released its “Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015,” which concluded that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s electricity will be generated from clean sources. Clearly, the decreasing cost of clean energy and the increasing recognition of the expansive social and environmental costs of dirty energy are influencing the global community.
The growing demand for clean energy is driving increased innovation in the field, as well. Governments and private companies are constantly in search of clean energy breakthroughs, and are exploring and implementing innovative technologies in the lab and in the world. On Wednesday, D.C. Water unveiled, for lack of a better term, a “poop to power” facility that will convert human waste into biogas, which can then be burned to generate electricity. In the U.K., Whales is planning to build the world’s first ever artificially constructed tidal lagoon power plant. And on Friday, Elon Musk, the well known innovator and entrepreneur who founded both SolarCity and Tesla, announced that SolarCity will begin producing their own highly efficient solar panels, which will decrease the price of solar electricity for American consumers.
With the cost of clean energy decreasing, international governments announcing new successes each week, and continued innovation in clean energy technology, one could only assume that the United States was similarly embracing the transition to a clean energy economy. Well, you know what they say when you assume…
While the US certainly has taken steps to support clean energy, this week highlighted the reason we are not a true leader in the field. On Monday, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was forced to fire 15 solar technology researchers, and expects to fire 40-60 more in the next month. These layoffs come as a result of the Republican-dominated US Congress cutting funding for solar research over the past few years, despite the Obama Administration’s continued budget requests for increased funding.
The annual budget of The Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) has decreased by 19 percent from 2012 to 2015. In 2012, SETO received $289 million and in 2015, the office received $233 million. For comparison, in 2015, Obama requested $282 million for SETO. According to the Washington Post, SETO “is the lead U.S. agency funding solar research, including solar research at NREL, and runs the SunShot Initiative, a set of goals seeking to make solar energy competitive with other forms of electricity by the year 2020.”
As if decreasing funding to the number one solar research financing office in the country was not enough, Congressional Republicans are also fighting against extensions to both the solar and wind energy tax credits. Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced a bill this Wednesday to end a multitude of renewable energy tax credits, including the wind production tax credit. In doing so he stated, “The wind industry has made major strides over the past two decades, and they have proven their industry to be efficient and self-sustainable. There is no need for the taxpayer to continue to subsidize a wind start-up tax credit.” He makes this argument as the U.S. Treasury reports that the trillion dollar fossil fuel industry still receives eleven tax credits in their favor, totalling $4.7 billion in annual benefits. The wind and solar tax credits are absolutely critical to enabling young renewable energy companies to compete with coal, oil, and gas giants.
Opponents to climate action constantly use the argument that the US cannot act alone to make a difference for the climate, and if we try to do so, the only thing we’ll achieve is harm to our own economy. Perhaps these opponents, the same people cutting funding to solar research and fighting to end the solar and wind tax credits, should think about how their rhetoric applies to clean energy. The rest of the world is embracing clean energy whether or not the US does so as well. If we choose to act alone in not doing so, we will destroy our ability to compete in the rapidly growing global renewable energy market, and watch as China, our greatest economic competitor, continues to control over two thirds of the global solar market. Ultimately, all we’ll achieve by not embracing clean energy is harm to our own economy.
This December, nations will gather in Paris for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st annual conference of the parties (COP21). The goal of COP21 is to strike the first-ever legally binding international agreement on climate. To say the least, hope is high for the negotiations in Paris. On Sunday, French President François Hollande went as far as to say, “Everyone is now convinced there will be [an] agreement in Paris.”
In anticipation of COP21, each country was asked to prepare an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) by October 1. Put simply, an INDC is an outline of what post-2020 climate actions a country is willing to take under a new international agreement. Now that the deadline has passed, the UNFCCC will analyze all the submitted INDCs, and attempt to develop the framework for an international deal that adequately addresses the threat of climate change, while also ensuring feasibility and flexibility for all countries involved.
Evidently, international governments are just like college students — they love to procrastinate. Scrambling to meet the deadline, over 30 nations submitted their INDCs just this week, and many waited till the final day. In total, 146 countries, varying greatly in size, population, political stability, and economic wealth, submitted their plan to fight climate change. Notable procrastinators included Brazil and India, the seventh and third greatest greenhouse gas emitting nations, respectively.
Brazil submitted their INDC on Monday, setting impressive goals of reducing emissions 37% by 2025, and increasing renewable energy generation to 45% of the nation’s total by 2030. Still considered a developing nation, Brazil drew great praise with its decision to set a concrete emissions reduction goal, rather than a goal to reduce emissions per unit GDP (emissions intensity). Other developing nations, like China, have focused on reducing emissions intensity to demonstrate that they recognize the importance of addressing climate change, but do not want to do so at the expense of their still growing economies.
India, the world’s fastest growing GHG emitter, waited till the last minute and submitted their INDC on Thursday. Unlike Brazil, India chose the more moderate path of reducing emissions per unit GDP, calling for a 35% decrease in emissions intensity by 2030. In their submission, India rationalized this decision by stating, “Nations that are now striving to fulfill this ‘right to grow’ of their teeming millions cannot be made to feel guilty of their development agenda as they attempt to fulfill this legitimate aspiration. Just because economic development of many countries in the past has come at the cost of environment, it should not be presumed that a reconciliation of the two is not possible.” Additionally, India pledged to attain 40% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
Along with the flurry of INDC submissions came two big announcements from France and England regarding climate change mitigation foreign aid (climate aid). David Cameron, the conservative Prime Minister of England, announced that England would provide £5.8bn in climate aid between the years of 2016 and 2021, a significant increase from the £3.87bn England offered between 2011 and 2016. Announcing this action, Cameron stated, “It is so important that we secure an ambitious, global deal in Paris later this year that keeps our goal of limiting global warming by 2050 to two degrees within reach. The UK is determined to play its part, not just by cutting our emissions at home but by providing support overseas to those who need it, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.”
Not wanting to be outdone by their northern neighbor, France announced that it will increase its climate aid from €3 to €5 billion annually by 2020. French President François Hollande has repeatedly emphasized the importance of securing financial support for any deal crafted in Paris, and now with this action, he is putting his money where his mouth is. In the coming months, it is expected that more countries will announce increases to their climate aid, as well.
While there is clear momentum heading into Paris, many are quick to point out that the cumulative goals described in the 146 INDCs do not even come close to adequately addressing climate change. This week, the nonprofit Climate Interactive published an analysis of the emissions reductions goals outlined in all the submitted INDCs. They determined that even if each nation met their stated goal, the Earth’s average temperature would still rise by 3.5˚C by 2100, which is well over the international goal of 2˚C. Scientists argue that 3.5˚C warming would lead to “catastrophes ranging from food shortages to widespread extinctions of plant and animal life.”
Though, in the world of international climate politics, which for the last 20 years has achieved next to nothing, many still cannot help but feel hopeful for Paris. We are at a monumental moment in history where 75% of the countries on Earth have not only acknowledged the need to address climate change, but they’ve dedicated time and resources to developing a plan to actually do so. And while the current pledges won’t keep us to less than 2˚C warming, they’re certainly better than nothing. Without any effort to reduce emissions, Climate Interactive found that temperatures would increase by 4.5˚C, which would lead to more severe food shortages, extinctions, etc.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, made a good point when he said, “Paris must be the floor, not the ceiling, for collective ambition.” In Paris, the key is to simply put a legally binding deal in place. Developing a framework that allows the global community to address climate change in a unified manner is in itself an enormously challenging task. Once that framework is set, it will be a much easier task to increase the deal’s stringency than it was to establish it in the first place. Thus, in future years as the inadequacy of the current pledges becomes evident, the need to address climate change becomes more demanding, and methods of reducing emissions become more economically viable, global leaders will have no choice but to amp up their efforts.
However, we must ask ourselves: what about the citizens of small, low-lying island nations like Tuvalu in the South Pacific who don’t have time to wait around for global leaders to twiddle their thumbs and realize their mistakes? These nations are being inundated by sea level rise as we speak, and are slowly, but surely, being wiped off the map. Are these nations destined to become sacrifices, or perhaps more accurately, martyrs, in the name of international climate negotiations?
In an emotional address to the United Nations in December 2014, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga, pleaded, “I ask you all to think what it is like to be in my shoes. Stop and pause for a moment. If you were faced with the threat of the disappearance of your nation, what would you do?” No one knows how Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande, or any other leader of a developed nation would respond to this powerful question, but it is with Sopoaga’s words in mind that all world leaders should enter the negotiations at COP21.
It is hard not to feel hopeful for Paris when it appears to be the best chance the global community has ever had to develop a legally binding deal on climate change, but if we cannot achieve a deal strong enough to protect nations like Tuvalu, how can we consider that “success”?
“I don’t think there’s a scientific consensus on that. If you want to print that life begins at conception, that’s settled science,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS).
“[He] ought to stay with his job, and let us stay with ours,” remarked Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.
“It’s called weather changes and you have storm and you have rain and you have beautiful days,” leading GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed.
And of course, “[He] is not a scientist, he’s a religious leader,” argued former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.
These quotes are just a small sample of the responses and opinions of Republican leaders in regards to Pope Francis’ recent efforts to rally the global community to fight against climate change. As Republican leaders often use Catholicism to argue for other policy positions, many had hoped that the Pope’s words and actions could shift the stalled US dialogue on climate. However, it has quickly become evident that GOP leaders are selective in which moments their faith guides them, and in which it does not.
In early June, Pope Francis, who has become widely known for his more progressive views, released a papal encyclical entitled, “Laudato Si,” or “Praise Be to You.” Encyclicals are considered the second most important form of papal declaration, with the first being an apostolic constitution. At its core, Laudato Si is a call to all 7.3 billion people on Earth to protect our planet from human greed and destruction, as fueled by unfettered capitalism.
Over 184 pages, Pope Francis describes the fearful potential of global climate change, while emphasizing the injustice of environmental degradation having the greatest impact on the world’s poor. Ultimately the Pope calls on each person to take it upon him or herself to protect our planet through individual action. However, more importantly, Francis acknowledges that these individual actions alone will not change the world. For that, the Pope explains, we need world leaders to act; and, as countries around the world prepare for the highly anticipated UN climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Pope released his encyclical with the intent of catalyzing that necessary action.
This week, as Francis became just the fourth Pope to visit the United States, he continued his crusade for an awoken consciousness around environmental protection. The Pope spoke about the moral imperative to act on climate change on the South Lawn of the White House, in the first-ever Papal address to Congress, and to the United Nations as they finalized their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
To Congress, the Pope said, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play.” However, not all members of Congress heard the Pope’s inspiring words.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), a devout Catholic, boycotted the speech. In an op-ed published the week prior, Gosar wrote that if “the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.” Unfortunately, even for some in attendance, the Pope’s call for action had little influence. Rep John Shimkus (R-IL), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, reacted to the speech by saying, “We were honored to have the pope. He’s a world leader of the Catholic Church. But he’s not an elected member of Congress. I don’t think he moves the needle at all.”
At this point it appears that some are simply too stubborn and too determined to act on their own opinions, rather than scientific fact, moral imperative, public consensus, and now religious faith, to be convinced that climate change is an issue worth addressing. Fortunately, for the planet and the human race, those individuals represent the vast minority, and if the events of this week are any indication, that minority is destined to lose.
This week saw 10 House Republicans sign onto a resolution stating that climate change is real, human-caused and that Congress needs to act; Senate Democrats introduce legislation calling for a 2% reduction in domestic emissions every year from 2016-2025; and Hillary Clinton finally come out in opposition to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, while also introducing a detailed platform on US energy with a heavy emphasis on clean energy and carbon mitigation.
Beyond these success stories, additional events this week brought a big blow to one of the most commonly used arguments against climate action. Opponents often claim that climate action is destroying the US’ ability to compete in the global market because it places restrictions on business operation, whereas, other nations like China, which is the world’s number one carbon emitter, have not made the same efforts. Even though that argument has been illegitimate for quite some time, this week saw it discredited even further.
Along with hosting the Pope this week, President Obama had another significant guest from abroad, the President of China Xi Jinping. Following a summit between the two Presidents on Wednesday, news broke that China plans to adopt a national cap and trade program. According to Time Magazine, the cap-and-trade program will “set a national limit in China on carbon emissions in the heavy-polluting industries of power generation, iron and steel, chemicals, and building materials and require companies to buy credits to pollute.” Evidently, China is in fact taking action to reduce their carbon emissions, and in ways above and beyond that of the US, as domestic cap and trade legislation has failed on numerous occasions in the US. Additionally, China announced $3.1 billion in aid for other nations to help reduce their carbon footprints and to develop sustainably.
This week also brought news of 9 Fortune 500 companies, including Starbucks, Walmart, Nike, Goldman and Sachs, and Proctor and Gamble, signing onto the RE100 pledge, and committing to lower their emissions and use only 100% renewable energy by varying dates in the future. These pledges come in addition to 12 Fortune 500 companies signing onto a similar White House pledge earlier this summer, which in total committed $140 billion to the development of renewable energy. Companies signing that pledge included Apple, Google Microsoft, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, Cargill, and Bank of America. Based on the voluntary nature of these actions, it is unlikely that companies would make these pledges if they thought climate action would be as debilitating as opponents claim it to be.
Despite the fact that this common argument is not based in fact, deniers like Bush, Trump, Huelskamp, Inhofe, Gosar and Shimkus continue to cling to it as if their lives depended on it.
Because they have absolutely nothing else to hold onto. Science, religion, media, public opinion, business, most international governments, and everyday observations of our natural world, all stand in stark contrast to their positions. So, have faith, while some members of Congress and Presidential candidates may not be heeding the Pope’s call on climate, the rest of the world is.
When President Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008, he made some big promises on climate change. He vowed he would set a goal of reducing U.S. emissions 80% by 2050, put in place a national cap and trade program, invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy R&D, and increase energy efficiency 50% by 2030. Now 7 years into his presidency, Obama has not accomplished all that he promised (and all that we need), but he has done more than any other President in history.
Notably, Obama has set aggressive fuel economy and emissions standards for light, medium and heavy duty vehicles, put in place the first ever carbon dioxide limits on U.S. power plants, and attempted to curb rogue methane emissions from oil and gas drilling. These efforts have all come as part of Obama’s comprehensive Climate Action Plan, which outlines many moves still to come.
Just this week, Obama hosted China’s top climate negotiator at the White House to discuss how to achieve the goals set forth in the historic U.S. – China climate agreement announced last November. The outcome of the visit was an announcement that 11 major Chinese cities are pledging to peak emissions in 2020 (10 years ahead of the country as a whole), in tandem with over a dozen major metropolitan areas in the U.S. committing to cut emissions 80% by 2050. Additionally, on Wednesday Obama announced a series of actions that funnel $120 million into the development and expansion of solar technology and other clean energy sources. According to a White House fact sheet detailing the new funding efforts, “since President Obama took office, the number of homes with rooftop solar has grown from more than 66,000 to 734,000” and, ”last year, the solar industry added jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy.”
The Administration’s announcements this past week are no oddity, either. Nearly every week Obama is detailing a new executive order, funding mechanism, or international effort aimed at fighting climate change, which makes his actions on offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling all the more confusing.
Along with his positive actions on climate this past week, Obama announced that 42 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will be sold for oil and gas drilling in March 2016. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that the 42 million acres hold up to 894 million barrels of oil and 3.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Not only will the burning of these fossil fuels contribute greatly to climate change, but who knows what harm could come to the Gulf of Mexico as companies drill for these resources.
The Gulf is far from recovered from the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill 5 years ago, in which 210 million gallons of oil were released, contaminating thousands of square miles. A study published this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) showed that Alaskan waters are still recovering 26 years after the Exxon Valdez spill (11 million gallons), forcing us to wonder about what bleak future lies ahead for the Gulf.
Additionally, this past January Obama announced that he is opening new areas off the Atlantic coast for drilling. That decision has received significant backlash from local leaders on the Southeast coast who depend heavily on tourism to stimulate their economy. Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, stated, “Risky drilling off our Southern coasts jeopardizes the communities, jobs and beloved beaches that are the very heart of our coastal states. Our coastal economies are the backbone of hundreds of towns and cities along the Southern coast, providing thousands of jobs, multibillion-dollar tourism industries, multimillion-dollar fishing industries, and critical local tax revenues.”
As if continued drilling in the Gulf and expanded drilling in the Atlantic were not enough to quench Obama’s thirst for offshore oil, his Administration is also seeking new opportunities to drill in uncharted waters – the arctic circle. Earlier this summer, and despite years of environmentalists campaigning against it, Obama gave final approval to the energy giant, Royal Dutch Shell, to drill two exploratory wells roughly 70 miles off of Alaska’s arctic coast. Scientists fear that a spill in these unforgiving conditions could be absolutely devastating for marine life.
Last week, in an almost comically ironic display, Obama went on a 12 day tour of Alaska, in which he posed in front of rapidly receding glaciers and made action on climate change the main focus of his trip. Media outlets were quick to call out the President on the hypocrisy of both OKing Arctic drilling, and touring Alaska delivering passionate speeches on climate.
In response to Obama’s contradictory and perplexing actions in support of offshore drilling anywhere and everywhere, environmental groups are increasing pressure on the president to rethink his actions. This past Monday, a broad-reaching coalition entitled, “Keep It In the Ground,” sent Mr. Obama a letter requesting that he cease all new leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands, both on and offshore, and highlighting drilling in the Gulf, the Atlantic and the Arctic, specifically. The coalition states that such an action could prevent the release of 450 billion tons of carbon pollution into our atmosphere. Additionally, last week a group of 300 businesses in the Southeast sent a letter to Obama specifically opposing his plans for expanded Atlantic drilling.
Truly, it is puzzling how our President can be so adamant in the need to address climate change one moment, and then signing over millions of square miles to oil and gas companies the next. Each and every day we are learning more about and seeing the debilitating impacts that climate change is having on U.S. states, and frankly, Obama’s actions on drilling are an insult to U.S. citizens whose livelihoods are currently being threatened by climate change. One needs only to look as far as the raging wildfires in California to see what climate change means to some.
While the blistering flames are not wholly caused by climate change, there is abundant peer-reviewed scientific evidence that it is contributing to the problem. A new study published in the scientific journal, Nature Climate Change, shows that California is currently experiencing a 500-year low in snowpack. As snowmelt is a primary source of water for California, this 500-year low is significantly contributing to the drought, which is creating abundant dry organic matter just waiting to burn.
Forest fires have always been an issue in California, but never to this extent. This year marks the first time that the U.S. Forest Service has spent the majority of its budget (52%) on wildfire suppression. For comparison, 20 years ago it was only 12% of the budget. Just this week, the USDA allocated another $250 million to wildfire suppression bringing the total up to $700 million for the year. This year, 7 million acres of forest, and thousands of people’s homes, belongings, and timeless keepsakes, have burned due to wildfire. This is just one example of how climate change is already impacting, and will continue to impact the lives of everyday Americans.
So, yes, Obama has done more than any President in American history to address the almost incomprehensible threat of global climate change, and for that, he deserves credit. However, his continued leasing of publicly owned lands, especially those offshore where the risk and impact of spills is much greater, counteracts all the emissions regulations, tax breaks for clean energy, and federal investments he has made to fight climate change. Combating climate change must be a complete effort, not a half-hearted one.
To me the problem is simple: someone needs to just remind our President of the old saying, “you cannot have your cake and eat it too,” so I guess I’ll step up the plate.
Mr. President, you cannot claim that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a change in climate” and then subsequently increase the U.S.’ capacity to attain, and burn the number one cause of that threat. It simply doesn’t make sense.
As scientific studies predicting the frightening potential impacts of climate change continue to pile up, the need for global action to reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is ever-growing. Each day we are learning more about the diverse and complex potential impacts of climate change on our planet and on human society.
For instance, in the context of current events in Syria, many have been discussing how climate change could act as a “threat-multiplier” in unstable nations, and increase the likelihood of war, crises, and mass migrations of refugees. On July 23, the U.S. Department of Defense released a detailed report on this very topic within the overall context of U.S. national security. In the case of Syria, many argue that severe drought across the country from 2006-2011, which was exacerbated by climate change, has been a contributing factor to the debilitating war now plaguing the country and its people.
Additionally, two new studies report that climate change caused arctic ice-melt might slow or shut down the ocean’s great circulation systems, inducing a global situation similar to the 2004 movie, “Day After Tomorrow.” In this future scenario, northern latitudes might face extreme cold temperatures (Greenland could drop 18˚F), while Southeast Asia could face centuries-long droughts. Unfortunately, this would not be a scenario easily fixed by a heroic Dennis Quaid — that burden falls on our world leaders.
Fortunately, world leaders are currently gearing up for the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris this December. Many see these negotiations as the final opportunity to establish a strong legally-binding international agreement on climate change that can prevent the mass migratory and “Day After Tomorrow”-esque situations described above.
However, French President Francois Hollande is one of the many who are hesitant to set their hopes too high for COP21. On September 7, after a week of pre-conference negotiations, Hollande emphasized the fact that COP21 could, and very well might, fail. Hollande remarked, “Good intentions are there, but we are still far away from a legally binding agreement and financing that is up to the levels needed. There is even a risk of failure.” Worryingly, failure in these negotiations is not unprecedented. In 2009, the UNFCCC’s annual meeting in Copenhagen was similarly preceded with very high expectations, but the conference came and went without any significant progress.
Hollande is most worried about securing financing for a deal that will give emerging economies the support they need to continue their development, but in a clean and sustainable manner. In Copenhagen, developed nations “promised” to cumulatively transfer $100 billion a year to developing nations for this very purpose in what was called the Green Climate Fund (GCF). As the non-binding nature of a “promise” would suggest, the GCF has been largely unsuccessful, never coming close to reaching the $100 billion a year goal.
The GCF’s failure thus far has Hollande and many others worried about securing a legally-binding financing mechanism for any deal crafted in Paris. Hollande asserts that “there has to be a pre-accord on the question of financing so that leaders come to Paris knowing there is certainty we will be able to conclude.” In making these comments, Hollande is only echoing the concerns of the leaders of developing nations who have contributed the least amount of GHGs to our atmosphere, but whose livelihoods are most threatened by a changing climate, induced by the carelessness of years and years of unabated emissions from developed nations.
Uncoincidentally, the Pacific Island Forum, a 16-nation group comprised mostly of poor nations that are barely 2 meters above sea level, made climate change the number one topic of discussion at their annual conference this week. Leaders of the countries Tuvalu, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands Nauru and Palau fear that their nations are being sacrificed in the larger context of climate negotiations. Formally, these 6 nations have called for a global moratorium on new coal mines, as well as demanded that the limit on global temperature rise be held to 1.5˚C, rather than the current international goal of 2˚C. Prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga, emotionally stated, “We are simply seeking the right of small island states to survive.”
Developed nations New Zealand and Australia, the largest economies represented in the Pacific Island Forum, blocked the smaller island nations’ attempt to establish the 1.5˚C target as an official stance of the entire Forum. Additionally, at the conference, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, were overheard joking about the impact of climate change on low-lying Pacific nations. These actions further exemplify the dissonance on climate amongst developed and developing nations, which has global leaders like France’s Hollande worried about the negotiations this December.
Perhaps most worrisome, is that some lawmakers in the U.S. are proactively trying to create even more divergence between developed and developing nations on climate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his staff have taken it upon themselves to reach out to foreign leaders and discourage them from agreeing to any climate deal that requires the U.S. to make substantial emissions cuts. McConnell and his staff are warning leaders that not only will the GOP adamantly oppose any deal, but that the U.S. is unreliable and incapable of meeting any emissions reduction goals they set. Fortunately, the U.S. Republican Party is a relative anomaly in the context of the global climate discussion.
Ultimately, whether it be the threat of a possible apocalyptic “Day After Tomorrow” world, the fear of having millions upon millions of displaced climate refugees to deal with, or the desire to simply piss off Mitch McConnell, the world desperately needs something — anything (Dennis Quaid?!) — that will close the gap between developed and developing nations on climate.
Leaders of developed nations must realize that they need to put their money where their mouth is and collaboratively develop an expansive and legally-binding funding mechanism to support emissions reductions in developing nations. Without such a realization, President Hollande may unfortunately find his fear of COP21’s failure to be affirmed.