Using a rarely invoked Congressional Review Act, Congress has paved the way for President Donald Trump to roll back three Obama-era environmental regulations.
On Thursday, the Senate, in a 54-45 vote, gave final legislative approval to a measure repealing a new rule aimed at preventing the dumping of coal mining debris into nearby streams. When announcing the Stream Protection Rule in December, the Department of the Interior said that it would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests.
On Friday, the House approved a Congressional Review Act resolution against the Bureau of Land Management’s methane venting and flaring rule. If approved by the Senate and signed by President Trump, the rule, which keeps companies from venting natural gas on public and tribal lands, would come off the books. In announcing the rule, which updated 30-year old regulations governing venting, flaring, and leaks of natural gas, the DOI said it would reduce the waste of public resources, cut methane emissions that contribute to climate change, and provide a fair return on public resources for taxpayers.
On the day Rex Tillerson was confirmed as Secretary of State, the House, with a strict party-line vote, killed a Securities and Exchange Commission transparency rule requiring companies to disclose mining- and drilling-related payments to foreign governments. When he was Exxon CEO, Tillerson had lobbied against the rule in part because it affected the company’s business dealings in Russia (subscription).
The Congressional Review Act allows Congress a small window to scuttle regulations before they take effect with a simple majority vote and blocks regulators from writing similar rules in the future unless Congress authorizes them via subsequent legislation.
Trump has also targeted specific regulations he believes hamper job growth, including the Waters of the U.S. Rule and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants but is under a Supreme Court stay. On Wednesday, a group of Republicans led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Former Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson Jr., met to discuss the prospect of imposing a national carbon tax, rather than using federal regulations, to address climate change.
“I really don’t know the extent to which it is manmade, and I don’t think anybody can tell you with certainty that it’s all manmade,” said James Baker, one of the members of the newly formed Climate Leadership Council. However, “the risk is sufficiently strong that we need an insurance policy and this is a damn good insurance policy.”
The group meets with White House officials this week about the plan to raise the cost of fossil fuels to bring down consumption—suggesting a tax of $40 a ton that would increase steadily over time. Tax proceeds, they state, would be redistributed to consumers on a quarterly basis in what they call “carbon dividends” that could be approximately $2,000 annually for a family of four.
Sessions Confirmed; Pruitt and Zinke Still Waiting
Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general who has served as a Senator from Alabama since 1997, was confirmed in a 52-47 vote Wednesday evening. He is expected to be sworn in today.
This week, Bloomberg BNA reported that the environment may not be a top priority for Sessions, who as a senator regularly voted against environmental protection legislation—for example, against a rule limiting emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants (in 2012) and a rule setting greenhouse gas standards for new and modified power plants (in 2015).
For Scott Pruitt, the path to consideration by the full Senate to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not without controversy. On Monday, nearly 450 former EPA employees urged Congress to reject his nomination.
“Our perspective is not partisan,” they wrote, noting that many of the 447 names on the letter had served as career employees under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “However, every EPA administrator has a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest based on current law and the best available science. Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the long-standing tenets of U.S. environmental law.”
As Pruitt awaits his Senate confirmation, a new bill—HR861—aims to get rid of the agency altogether. Introduced during the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing “Make the EPA Great Again,” its details are sparse.
Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary nominee, and Rick Perry, Energy Secretary nominee, were both approved by Senate committee vote last month but await consideration by the full Senate. According to Senator Jon Tester, that could be a bit.
“I think that right now, the priority was put on DeVos, and Price, and on Sessions and Mnuchin, and I think that’s where the majority wants to move,” said Tester. “They want to move on those four very controversial ones before they get to Perry and Zinke, and I think Perry and Zinke, neither one of those are near as controversial. I think that they’ll go through, it’s just a matter of getting them floor-time to send them through.”
New Study Affirms Nonexistence of Global Warming Slowdown Amid Furor Over Earlier Study
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that in 2015 found no evidence of a warming slowdown over the last decade is under the microscope again. At the time, challenges by climate change doubters prompted a U.S. House of Representatives committee to subpoena the study authors’ e-mails—and the threat of subpoenas was raised again on Sunday by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who accused NOAA scientists of politically motivated fraud.
Citing statements critical of the 2015 NOAA study (sometimes referred to as the Karl study after lead author Tom Karl) by former National Climatic Data Center scientist John Bates that appeared in The Daily Mail, Smith said, “Dr. Bates’ revelations and NOAA’s obstruction certainly lend credence to what I’ve expected all along—that the Karl study used flawed data, was rushed to publication in an effort to support the president’s climate change agenda, and ignored NOAA’s own standards for scientific study.”
The truth, according to a new analysis of data from ocean buoys, robotic floats, and satellites published in the journal Sciences Advances, is that earlier suggestions of a warming slowdown are incorrect and were the result of measurement error—a confirmation of the NOAA study conclusion.
“Our results mean that essentially NOAA got it right, that they were not cooking the books,” said lead author Zeke Hausfather when the study was published in January.
In Carbon Brief, Hausfather said, “What he [Bates] fails to mention is that the new NOAA results have been validated by independent data from satellites, buoys and Argo floats and that many other independent groups, including Berkeley Earth and the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre, get effectively the same results.”
Bates, in an interview with E&E News on Tuesday, clarified that his issue was with the publication process and not with the data underlying the NOAA research.
To determine whether the 2015 NOAA study findings were correct, Hausfather and his colleagues took an independent look at ocean temperatures. Rather than combine old ship measurements with data from new buoys, as NOAA had done, they created temperature records from individual data sources. They found that—no matter the source, whether satellites, robotic floats, or buoys—the warming ocean trends matched those found in the NOAA study. The conclusion? Oceans have warmed consistently over the previous 50 years, at about 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an order that will require federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new rule and that will set an annual cap on the cost of new regulations with the exceptions of military and national security regulations. For fiscal year 2017, the cap will require that the cost of new regulations be completely offset by the rescinding of existing rules. Starting in 2018, the order directs the White House Office of Management and Budget head to give each agency a budget for increasing or decreasing regulatory costs.
Yet, legal experts suggest that the executive order could be impossible to implement because many regulations are required by laws written by Congress.
“It should be noted that no [executive order] can change underlying statutes adopted in the regular order by Congress and signed by the president,” Scott Segal, an industry lawyer at Bracewell LLP, told ClimateWire (subscription).
The new order comes on the heels of a Congressional Research Service study finding that the Clean Air Act’s regulatory structure “faces an unusual degree of uncertainty” this year, with one or more branches of government poised to weigh in on key existing EPA rules. Those rules include the Clean Power Plan, methane rules for new or substantially modified oil and gas operations, and EPA’s latest ambient air quality standards for ozone. Yet other rules could be vulnerable under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress 60 legislative working days from the time a federal regulation is finalized to pass a “joint resolution of disapproval” on the rule.
The House passed two bills on Wednesday invoking the seldom used Congressional Review Act to attempt to roll back the Stream Protection Rule and the Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to reveal payments made to foreign governments. The rules were among five Obama administration regulations, including the Bureau of Land Management’s restrictions on methane emissions from flaring and venting during oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands, being targeted for reversal.
Trump has targeted specific regulations he believes hamper job growth, including the Waters of the U.S. Rule and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants but is under a Supreme Court stay.
Trump Nominates Supreme Court Justice; Some Cabinet Appointees Move Forward
President Donald Trump on Tuesday appointed 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant last February by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The decision, which has implications for environmental policy, comes as Trump promised—within two weeks of taking office.
Gorsuch’s parallels to Scalia were described by SCOTUSBlog writer Eric Citron as “eerie.”
“He is an ardent textualist (like Scalia); he believes criminal laws should be clear and interpreted in favor of defendants even if that hurts government prosecutions (like Scalia); he is skeptical of efforts to purge religious expression from public spaces (like Scalia); he is highly dubious of legislative history (like Scalia); and he is less than enamored of the dormant commerce clause (like Scalia),” Citron wrote.
Although Gorsuch hasn’t ruled on many environmental matters, Inside EPA reports that he has called for limiting the discretion of the EPA and other agencies to interpret their own authority. Last year, in Gutierrez-Brizuelo v. Lynch, Gorsuch indicated he was fine without Chevron deference, the legal doctrine granting government agencies interpretation of ambiguous statutes unless their interpretation of a statute is unreasonable.
“We managed to live with the administrative state before Chevron. We could do it again,” wrote Gorsuch in the majority opinion.
In that opinion, Gorsuch argued that the meaning of the law is for judges, not federal bureaucrats, to decide.
“Where in all this does a court interpret the law and say what it is?” Gorsuch said. “When does a court independently decide what the statute means and whether it has or has not vested a legal right in a person? Where Chevron applies that job seems to have gone extinct.”
Also this week, several of Trump’s cabinet picks—Department of Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry, U.S. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions and Department of the Interior nominee Ryan Zinke—gained committee approval and now move forward for consideration by the full Senate.
All 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is tasked with considering whether to move Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the EPA to the full Senate, opted to boycott the Wednesday meeting. They said Pruitt failed to provide substantive answers to questions about rules governing air pollution, toxic chemicals and lead in gasoline. But today, Republicans on the committee advanced Pruitt’s nomination on a party line vote after suspending committee rules because of the boycott.
Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was confirmed by the Senate as the next Secretary of State by a 56-43 vote and was sworn in Wednesday evening. At his confirmation hearing, he acknowledged that the climate is changing but said that he believes science is not conclusive on the issue of how rising greenhouse gas emissions will affect life on Earth. He expanded on his views when providing written responses to questions posed by two senators.
“I agree with the consensus view that combustion of fossil fuels is a leading cause for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he wrote to Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. “I understand these gases to be a factor in rising temperature, but I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the ‘key’ factor.”
Study Says Carbon Capture Necessary to Meet Paris Agreement Goal
The global climate can survive the possible withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, said the authors of a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The bigger threat, they said, is a world without widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Absent those technologies, achieving the climate treaty’s goal to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius could be impossible.
The authors reached that conclusion by reviewing past energy trends and examining nearly 150 countries’ pledged carbon reduction targets in the context of more than 100 climate simulations indicating how changes in energy production and use through 2040 could meet the 2 degrees Celsuis goal. To deal with the mix of targets—among them, straight emissions reductions (for example, 30 percent by 2030), lowered emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP), and technology deployment (for example, expansion of renewables)—the study used the Kaya Identity method, which breaks the carbon dioxide emissions rate into the human factors that affect it—broad factors such as GDP and more specific ones such as quantity of deployed renewables.
The study paints a good news-bad news picture of progress toward the 2 degrees Celsius goal. It indicates that the rate of global emissions has leveled off over the last few years due to a reduction in coal burning by China, a shift from coal to gas and renewables plus increased industrial energy efficiency in the United States, rapid expansion of renewables in the European Union, and slowed GDP growth in the U.S., EU and China. But sustaining this trend of decreasing carbon intensity of energy will not be easy. Although renewables development is keeping pace with 2 degree Celsius scenarios, nuclear power is lagging and CCS is barely past the starting gate. Only a few CCS facilities are operational, and only a couple of dozen are in construction.
“The greatest challenge is the slower-than-expected rollout of technologies to capture and permanently store carbon from fossil fuel and bioenergy combustion,” said study co-author Robbie Andrew of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). “Most scenarios suggest the need for thousands of facilities with carbon capture and storage by 2030, and this compares with the tens currently proposed.”
Thus far, high up-front costs have stymied development of commercial-scale CCS plants. If they don’t materialize, the world faces a harsh reality, suggests lead author Glen Peters of CICERO.
“If we don’t have CCS, then we will need to reduce use of fossil fuels much faster and in a much more disruptive way,” he said.
Study co-author Robert Jackson of Stanford University noted that CCS technology will prove even more crucial if President Donald Trump makes good on his pledge to revive the nation’s limping coal industry.
“There’s no way to reduce the carbon emissions associated with coal without carbon capture and storage,” Jackson said.
We may find out soon whether Trump will follow through on his pledge to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate deal when he issues an expected review of the U.S.’s involvement in multinational treaties. InsideEPA lays out mechanisms through which the administration could do so (subscription).
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
In a Policy Forum article published in the journal Science, President Barack Obama says that the national policy trend toward a clean-energy economy is “irreversible” and that the trend will continue due to “the mounting economic and scientific evidence” of its value. The article points to the scientific case for actions on climate change, energy efficiency and emissions—the latest in a series of publications on different policy topics Obama has penned in academic journals, including the Harvard Law Review and the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The United States is showing that GHG [greenhouse gas] mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation,” Obama writes in Science just days before President-Elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20. “Evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1 percent to 5 percent of global GDP each year by 2100.”
The article goes on to cover many of the environmental policies that Trump has said he may axe when he takes office, including the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition,” Obama writes. “This does not mean the next administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my administration’s. There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve—efficiently and economically—the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement.”
Obama also discusses the struggles of the coal industry, offering that because the cost of new electricity generation using natural gas is projected to remain low relative to coal, “it is unlikely that utilities will change course and choose to build coal-fired power plants, which would be more expensive than natural gas plants, regardless of any near-term changes in federal policy.”
While it will take some time to evaluate which of Trump’s statements about environmental policy actually provide guiding points for how he will govern, The Hill takes a look at what Trump has promised to date on environment and how much might actually be accomplished on day one. At a press conference Wednesday, Trump said he planned to make a decision on his nominee for the Supreme Court within two weeks of taking office—a decision that would have implications for environmental policy.
Trump Transition: Tillerson Confirmation Hearing
The Senate confirmation hearing for Trump’s pick to lead the Department of State began early on Wednesday with conversation and questions about Russian relations. Nominated for the most senior U.S. diplomat position, one responsible for enacting the U.S. government’s foreign policy, the former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson told senators that relations with Russia could be improved under his leadership despite concerns over his ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
“We’re not likely to ever be friends,” Tillerson said, noting that the United States and Russia do not hold the same values. “With Russia, engagement is necessary in order to define what that relationship going to be. There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.”
On the topic of climate change, Tillerson expressed that the “risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” But he added, “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited,” and precisely what actions nations should take “seems to be the largest area of debate existing in the public discourse.”
Tillerson said he viewed the issue primarily as an engineering problem and that Trump has “invited my views on climate change. “He knows I am on the public record with my views. I look forward to providing those, if confirmed, to him and policies around how the United States should carry it out in these areas.”
What else was discussed? Tillerson clarified, and appeared to reconfirm, his support for a carbon tax, and made comments about the importance of maintaining a seat at the table on how to address climate change with international treaties.
EIA: United States Could Become Energy Exporter
The United States has not been a net exporter of energy since 1953, but it could regain that status by 2026. That’s the finding of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2017, which makes energy market projections through 2050 for scenarios with a high oil price, high and low oil and gas resource and technology, and high and low economic growth as well as for a scenario in which the Clean Power Plan is not implemented. In most of those projections, natural gas production increases.
“Natural gas production, we think, is actually going to go up quite a bit, with relatively low and stable prices, so that’s going to support higher levels of domestic consumption, especially in the electric power and industrial sectors, where we think there will be quite a bit of natural gas use,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski.
He noted that technology advances are helping reduce the cost for both fossil fuel production and renewables.
“EIA’s projections show how advances in technology are driving oil and natural gas production, renewables penetration, and demand-side efficiencies and reshaping the energy future,” he said.
Across the scenarios in the report, projections for energy consumption are more consistent than those for production, whose growth is dependent on technology, resource, and market conditions. The EIA finds that although zero-carbon renewables are expected to grow faster than any other energy source over the next three decades, their increase is not likely to significantly help the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement (subscription). Instead, energy-related carbon emissions will nearly flatline, falling from an annual rate of 1.4 percent between 2005 and 2016 to 0.2 percent between 2016 and 2040. That’s because carbon reductions from electricity plants’ switch from coal to natural gas and renewables will be offset by emissions from a growing chemical industry.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan will affect energy-related carbon emissions, according to the report (subscription), though not as much as greater use of renewables and natural gas. If the plan is rescinded or overturned, annual emissions would slightly increase to 5.4 billion metric tons through 2040. If the plan is implemented, those emissions would drop to 5 billion metric tons. The scenario without the Clean Power Plan has the highest greenhouse gas emissions, but such a scenario does not include a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, which the Clean Air Act currently appears to require. However, other avenues under the Clean Air Act may be used to pursue greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
As G20 leaders concluded their meeting in Hangzhou on Monday, they reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change, but they did not agree on deadlines to ratify the Paris Agreement limiting Earth’s temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (subscription). Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement is significantly more likely to take effect this year because on Saturday the United States and China jointly announced that they are formally joining it.
The agreement enters into force once ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the United States and China represent nearly 39 percent of the world’s emissions and bring the number of countries that have signed on to the agreement to 26, according to a count by the World Resources Institute. U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping said they will cooperate on two other global environmental agreements this year: one is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol related to air-conditioning in refrigeration and the other aims to reduce carbon emissions from aviation.
In his opening address to the G20 meeting, Jinping promoted domestic carbon targets and plans to cut a billion tons of coal production capacity in three to five years. Internationally, he declared it a priority to “jointly establish green and low-carbon global energy governance to promote global green development cooperation” (subscription).
On the eve of the G20 summit, a report by Climate Transparency has found that G20 countries’ pledged carbon cuts must be six times deeper to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. As a bloc, the G20 countries produce some 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Study Warns of Impacts Associated with Ocean Warming
Climate change is altering marine species, spreading disease, and threatening food security, according to a major scientific analysis of ocean warming impacts by 80 scientists from 12 countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report said the soaring temperature of the oceans is the “greatest hidden challenge of our generation.”
“We perhaps haven’t realized the gross effect we are having on the oceans, we don’t appreciate what they do for us,” said Dan Laffoley, IUCN marine adviser and one of the report’s lead authors. “We are locking ourselves into a future where a lot of the poorer people in the world will miss out.”
An IUCN press release points to examples of the impacts of ocean warming in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, where there has been a reduction in the abundance of some fish species as the coral reefs they depend on die off, and in southeast Asia, there’s expected to be a 10-30 percent decrease in harvests from marine fisheries by 2050 relative to 1970-2000.
Change in the ocean, according to the report, is happening 1.5 to 5 times faster than on land and could penetrate the ocean at depths at or below 2,300 feet. The report calls for rapid and significant cuts to greenhouse gases, further research, and expansion of marine protected areas to help deal with these impacts.
Expert Working Group Says We Are Living in Age of Anthropocene
This week, members of the Working Group on the Anthropocene said that on the basis of humanity’s profound impact on Earth, it is formally recognizing a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The “age of the humans” designation would mean we’ve moved from the so-called Holocene epoch—the interglacial period during which Homo sapiens flourished—to an epoch in which human activity has manifested itself in ways that leave traces in the geological record, significantly altering the character of the entire biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and cryosphere.
“Our working model is that the optimal boundary is the mid-20th century,” said Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. “If adopted—and we’re a long way from that—the Holocene would finish and the Anthropocene would formally be held to have begun.”
The approval process requires ratification by three other academic bodies and could take at least two years.
“Human action has certainly left traces on the earth for thousands of years, if you know where to look,” Zalasiewicz said. “The difference between that and what has happened in the last century or so is that the impact is global and taking place at pretty much the same time across the whole Earth. It is affecting the functioning of the whole earth system.”
A study published last week in Nature Geoscience provides the first measurements of greenhouse gases from permafrost under Arctic lakes in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada. Although the research reveals that only a small amount of old carbon has been released in the past 60 years, it also suggests that much more could be released as the Arctic warms up faster than any other place on Earth.
“It’s a lit fuse, but the length of that fuse is very long,” said lead author Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska. “According to the model projections, we’re getting ready for the part where it starts to explode. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
The scientists determined that the permafrost-carbon feedback is thus far small by looking at aerial photographs and using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of methane emitted from the Arctic lakes that are expanding to consume and thaw terrestrial permafrost. As that permafrost melts and decomposes, it releases ancient carbon as carbon dioxide and methane. Analysis of 113 radiocarbon dating measurements and 289 soil organic carbon measurements showed that approximately 0.2 to 2.5 petagrams of permafrost carbon was released as methane and carbon dioxide in the past six decades.
The billions of tons of carbon stored in permafrost are approximately double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Many researchers are concerned that emission of that stored carbon will contribute to warming that then contributes to permafrost thawing in an accelerating feedback loop.
NASA: Temperature Reconstructions Suggest Achievement of Paris Agreement Goals “Unlikely”
The Paris Agreement’s goal to limit Earth’s temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is unlikely to be achieved according to temperature reconstructions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Those reconstructions reveal that the world is heating up faster than at any other time within the past 1,000 years. Over the next 100 years, according to NASA, it will continue to warm at least 20 times faster than the historical average.
“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination (of temperatures). Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or coordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.”
Using evidence left in tree rings, layers of ice in glaciers, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks, NASA figures that the past century’s warming of 0.7 degrees Celsius is roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.
This year, the average global temperature reached 1.38 Celsius above levels observed in the 19th century, just 0.12 Celsius below the 1.5 Celsius limit that nations aimed for in the Paris Agreement.
Climate Change Major Focus at G20 Summit
Climate change is among the topics world leaders are expected to discuss at a G20 summit in China, beginning September 4.
“This is the first time that the G20 leaders are gathering to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change, (and) how we implement them in parallel,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
President Obama, who began his 10-day trip to Asia on Wednesday, is expected to stress the urgency of climate change. And some media outlets are reporting that the United States and China are expected to announce their ratification of the Paris Agreement prior to the start of the G20 Summit, but the White House has made no formal statement to this effect.
“We’ve made the commitment that we will join in 2016. And we’ve made the commitment to do that as soon as possible this year,” said Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president. “With respect to exactly when, I don’t have any announcements on that front. But we’ve committed, and we’ve been working on that issue.”
Antarctica is home to Earth’s largest ice mass, which unlike the Arctic remains frozen year round. But a new satellite-based study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that atop the coastal Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land, large numbers of meltwater lakes have been forming.
The study suggests that the lakes—nearly 8,000 of them—appeared in the summer months between 2000 and 2013. Like lakes that have formed from the meltwater of ice sheets in areas such as Greenland, those in East Antarctica may affect rates and patterns of ice melt, ice flow and ice shelf disintegration.
“What we find is that the appearance of these lakes, unsurprisingly, is correlated directly with the air temperature in the region, and so the maximum number of lakes, and the total area of the lakes, as well as the depth of the lakes, all of these things peak when the air temperatures peak,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University in the U.K. and one of the study’s authors.
The concern is that the lakes’ meltwater will drain into the underlying ice, causing the ice sheet to weaken. The long-term effects are unknown, the authors say.
“We do not think that the lakes on Langhovde Glacier are at present affecting the glacier, but it will be important to monitor these in the future to see how they evolve with surface air temperature changes,” said lead study author Emily Langley of Durham University in the U.K.
Natural Gas Emissions to Edge Out Coal Emissions This Year
In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, released last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that for the first time since 1972 energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas will surpass those from coal. Although natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, its consumption has increased while coal consumption has decreased, leading to what the EIA expects will be 10 percent greater energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas than from coal in 2016.
The EIA estimates that this year natural gas will fuel 34 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared with 30 percent for coal. Last year, natural gas generated slightly less than 33 percent of electricity, and coal generated slightly more than 33 percent.
The EIA also noted that annual U.S. carbon intensity rates have been falling since 2005, in part because of increased consumption of low- or zero-carbon electricity from nuclear plants and renewables. Along with the decrease in coal consumption, the increase in non-fossil fuel consumption has reduced U.S. total carbon intensity from 60 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2005 to 54 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2015.
But the EIA’s emissions numbers do not reflect emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas released by gas drilling and transport operations. The extent of methane emissions from oil and gas production and distribution is uncertain, complicating the climate impacts of switching from coal to gas. Once those emissions total more than 4 percent of total gas production, according to a study cited in Utility Dive, they begin to negate the climactic benefits of gas over coal.
Obama Uses Anniversary to Remind Country of Climate Change’s Threat to National Parks
As the United States marks the centennial of the National Park Service this week, its parks are being widely celebrated for their natural grandeur. But President Obama used the milestone as a reminder of the threat climate change poses to the parks in a video released Saturday.
“As president, I’m proud to have built upon America’s tradition of conservation. We’ve protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters—more than any administration in history,” said Obama.
“As we look ahead, the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”
The National Park Service warns that today’s “rapid climate change challenges national parks in ways we’ve never seen before. Glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate, increasingly destructive storms threaten cultural resources and park facilities, habitat is disrupted—the list goes on.”
How is the National Park Service planning for climate change? The Atlantic reports that although parks have been slow to adapt their management practices, they are taking steps to cut emissions and educate the public about climate change and its effects. It reports that the visitors’ center at California’s Pinnacles National Park runs on electricity from solar panels, passenger vehicles are banned in Zion National Park during the summer, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, several beach restoration projects are in the works due to erosion caused partly by sea-level rise.
In March, the Guardian issued an election-related call-out to online readers in the United States, asking them to identify the “one issue that affects your life you wish the presidential candidates were discussing more.” The results are in. Of the 1,385 respondents from all 50 states, one in five expressed discontent about lack of discussion of climate change, an issue described in vivid terms, such as “cataclysmic” and “slow-motion apocalypse.” Respondents expressed greatest concern about sea-level rise and decreasing food and water security.
“Climate change is the common denominator for us all regardless of gender, creed or political affiliation,” said Sarah Owen in a video response to the survey.
Between parties, there’s divide on the topic of climate change. Eleven House Republicans who are trying to change their party’s attitude about climate change and four of five Republican senators with a record of supporting action on it skipped this week’s GOP convention, where delegates approved a party platform that rejected the Paris Agreement, a carbon tax, and other action on climate change and that downplayed use of renewable energy.
“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it,” reads the platform.
Just how ambitious the Democratic Party will be in attempting to reduce carbon emissions—particularly, its stance on a carbon tax—remains to be seen. The full platform committee will hammer out details in Orlando on Friday and Saturday.
In an interview with ClimateWire, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing suggested that the U.S. presidential election will have less impact on American efforts to combat climate change than a host of other factors ranging from new technologies and appliance standards to political support for renewable energy tax credits.
“To me, there’s more likely to be continuity no matter who’s in office,” Pershing said.
Projecting Clean Power Plan Costs, Impacts
The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants. Assuming the rule survives judicial review and is implemented, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a reduction of power sector emissions of about 35 percent by 2030.
Assuming the Clean Power plan is upheld, EIA projects emissions outcome and electricity generation mix for multiple state implementation strategies—that is, pursuit of mass-based emissions targets or rate-based emissions targets. EIA projects higher prices if emissions allocations under a mass-based regime are given to generators rather than load-serving entities, but “price effects are similar in the [mass] and CPP rate cases where the average electricity price from 2022 through 2030 in both cases is 2 percent higher than in the No CPP case, and 3 percent higher on average from 2030 through 2040,” analysts wrote.
As the EIA data suggests, utilities and other power producers are likely to be in different positions if the rule moves forward—some will benefit from the rule, and others will face costs to comply, which can lead to monetary transfers among different producers and consumers of electricity. A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions builds on this understanding by exploring the distributional impacts of choosing rate-based and mass-based approaches to comply with the Clean Power Plan. It finds that states adopting a mass-based compliance approach can use allowance allocation to largely control monetary transfers within a state. States adopting a rate-based compliance approach lack this direct control mechanism.
Each state’s system of electricity regulation and any changes in wholesale prices for electricity due to the policy in regional electricity markets will play a major role in determining how cost distribution and potential transfers play out, the authors said.
Study: Warm Water, Not Air, Accelerating Glacier Retreat on Western Antarctic Peninsula
A study published in the journal Science found that ocean warming, rather than atmospheric warming, is the primary cause of retreat of 90 percent of the 674 glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula. Because the peninsula’s glaciers are among the main contributors to sea-level rise, the study suggests that better understanding of how and why they’re changing will increase the accuracy of ice-loss predictions.
“Scientists know that ocean warming is affecting large glaciers elsewhere on the continent, but thought that atmospheric temperatures were the primary cause of all glacier changes on the Peninsula,” said lead author Alison Cook of Swansea University. “We now know that’s not the case.”
The scientists came to that conclusion after linking a distinct pattern of melt from north to south on the peninsula with a pattern of temperatures at mid-ocean depths that mirrored the melt. At the southern end of the western side of the peninsula, they found that a welling up of warm Circumpolar Deep Water wears away the fronts of glaciers. At the northern end of the peninsula, the fronts of glaciers are more stable because they terminate at colder waters that come from a different source.
“Our results are key for making predictions of ice loss in response to ocean warming in this region,” Cook said. “The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the largest current contributors to sea-level rise, and the glaciers here are highly sensitive, so [they] are key indicators of how the ice will respond to future changes.”
At the North American Leaders Summit on Wednesday, Mexico, Canada and the United States pledged to generate 50 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2025. The joint commitment by the three countries, according to White House Adviser Brian Deese, is “an aggressive goal” but one that is “achievable continent-wide.”
“The Paris Agreement was a turning point for our planet, representing unprecedented accord on the urgent need to take action to combat climate change through innovation and deployment of low-carbon solutions,” the leaders said in a statement. “North America has the capacity, resources and the moral imperative to show strong leadership building on the Paris Agreement and promoting its early entry into force. We recognize that our highly integrated economies and energy systems afford a tremendous opportunity to harness growth in our continuing transition to a clean energy economy. Our actions to align climate and energy policies will protect human health and help level the playing field for our businesses, households, and workers.”
Last year, 32 percent of North America’s overall power came from clean energy sources. The White House cited renewable energy, nuclear plants, and carbon capture and storage technology as possible avenues to achieving the 50 percent goal in the next nine years. In addition, measures will be taken to reduce greenhouse gases in the economies of the three countries through deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, conduct research to accelerate clean energy innovation, support cross-border transmission projects, and examine adding more renewables to the power grid with a joint study of renewables opportunities and impacts
Mexico will join Canada and the United States in reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. Reduction strategies are planned for the agricultural and waste management sectors.
Could Brexit Complicate EU Effort on Paris Agreement?
Although the full effects of the United Kingdom’s decision, last week, to leave the European Union (EU)—the so-called Brexit—are still unclear, some think it could have far-reaching effects on Europe’s commitment to last year’s landmark Paris climate agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The impending departure of the EU’s second largest emitter and a leading advocate of increased EU ambition ahead of the Paris Agreement complicates Brussels’ plan to divide up the EU’s pledge to cut emissions at least 40 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2030 (subscription). The United Kingdom would have contributed significantly to meeting that pledge—under a 2008 domestic law it is on a pathway to cut its emissions 57 percent by 2030.
Assuming the United Kingdom stays in the Paris Agreement, its contribution would likely be based on its Climate Change Act. To abandon its current emissions reductions commitments would mean repealing the act.
For now, the United Kingdom remains a supporter of the Paris Agreement, and in the short term no changes are slated in its domestic emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050. But the United Nations says that, once the United Kingdom leaves the EU, a “recalibration” of the Paris Agreement will be necessary.
“While I think the U.K’s role in dealing with a warming planet may have been made harder by the decision last Thursday, our commitment to dealing with it has not gone away,” said Amber Rudd, Britain’s Energy Secretary. “Climate change has not been downgraded as a threat. It remains one of the most serious long-term risks to our economic and national security.”
Studies Find Pink Snow Contributing to Climate Change; Humans Changing Vegetation Growth
A study in the journal Nature Communications links the pink-hued snow in higher altitudes in the Arctic to climate-change-related increases in algae blooms that are causing melting in the region at an unprecedented pace. The presence of red algae reduces the snow’s ability to reflect light instead of absorbing it as heat (albedo), reducing albedo by as much as 13 percent in one season.
“The algae need liquid water in order to bloom,” said the University of Leeds’ Stefanie Lutz, lead author of the study. “Therefore the melting of snow and ice surfaces controls the abundance of the algae. The more melting, the more algae. With temperatures rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon will likely also increase leading to an even higher bio-albedo effect.”
It is unclear how widespread these algae blooms can become, but based on her observations, Lutz said “a conservative estimate would be 50 percent of the snow surface on a glacier [will be covered by the algae] at the end of a melt season.”
A separate study by NASA, which analyzed more than 87,000 satellite images, found extensive greening of land in Canada and Alaska while these area’s Boreal regions were browning as a result of climate change.
“Whereas temperature limited tundra regions have almost ubiquitously increased productivity with warming temperatures … trees in the boreal system do not respond well to high temperatures,” said Scott Goetz, deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s not what most people typically think of as drought, related to soil moisture, but the effect is the same. Boreal trees are like living organisms anywhere, they will do what they need to do to survive… It’s all finely tuned by centuries of evolutionary adaptation.”
“Our findings reveal that the observed greening record is consistent with an assumption of anthropogenic forcings, where greenhouse gases play a dominant role, but is not consistent with simulations that include only natural forcings and internal climate variability,” the authors write.
Coral in every major reef region across the world has already experienced bleaching, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts that temperatures in much of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans could reach a point at which significant bleaching of corals is present this summer. NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch suggests that the greatest threat is to reefs in Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. All Northern Hemisphere U.S.-coral reefs are on alert for bleaching.
In a statement, NOAA said that “This third global bleaching event began in mid-2014” and is ongoing. “Global warming, coupled with intense El Nino, continues to make this the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event on record.”
Coral bleaches when it becomes damaged or diseased by rising water temperatures. Some recent studies have suggested other factors—beyond just warming water—also play a role. Over the past century, climate change has already caused global sea surface temperatures to rise by about 1 degree Celsius, pushing corals closer to their bleaching threshold.
Although the bleaching event was already the longest in recorded history and was predicted to run past the middle of the year, NOAA’s latest climate model-based forecasts suggest it will run at least through the end of 2016.
“It’s time to shift this conversation to what can be done to conserve these amazing organisms in the face of this unprecedented global bleaching event,” said Jennifer Koss, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program director. “We have boots on the ground and fins in the water to reduce local stressors. Local conservation buys us time, but it isn’t enough. Globally, we need to better understand what actions we all can take to combat the effects of climate change.”
This month, NASA launched a new, three-year project—Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL)— to study the Pacific Oceans coral reefs by aircraft from 23,000 feet above the ocean. NASA scientists plan to map large swaths of coral in hopes of better understanding how environmental changes—including climate change, acidification, and pollution—are affecting these delicate ecosystems.
“CORAL will provide the most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world’s coral reefs from a uniform data set,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab penned in a press release. “The data will reveal trends between coral reef condition and biogeophysical forcings, both natural and those arising from human activities. With this new understanding of reef condition, we can better predict the future of this global ecosystem.”
White House Announces Energy Storage Projects
At a summit of regulators, power companies, municipalities, and energy developers on Monday, the Obama administration announced new executive actions and 33 state and private sector commitments to “accelerate the grid integration of renewable energy and storage.” Collectively, the commitments—aimed at reducing carbon emissions and increasing the resilience of the electricity grid—are expected to result in at least 1.3 gigawatts of additional storage procurement or deployment over five years and could lead to approximately $1 billion in energy storage investments.
Among the actions, are funding for microgrids in rural communities, a U.S. Department of Energy push for standardization of and increased access to energy data, and release of White House Council of Economic Advisers report on the “technical and economic considerations and opportunities” relating to the grid integration of renewables. On the private sector side, 16 developers and power companies set new storage procurement and deployment targets. Some are committing to smart water heaters, smart meters and demand response programs.
Federal programs to boost storage and microgrid capacity at federal installations and military bases may be a game changer, according to one electricity market analyst. In a research note on the commitments, reported PV Magazine, GTM Research highlighted storage deployment by the U.S. Navy for its “potential to genuinely grow the market beyond business-as-usual.”
Obama Says Climate Change a Threat to National Parks
“One of the things that binds us together is we only have one planet and climate change is probably the biggest threat—not only to natural wonders like this—but to the well-being of billions of people, coastal cities, agricultural communities that can be displaced in the span of a few decades by changes in temperatures that mean more drought, more wildfires,” Obama said during an interview with National Geographic that will air in later this summer to commemorate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. “Part of why it’s so important for us to raise awareness (about climate change) with the general public is: This is a solvable problem.”
He added: “Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers at Glacier National Park. No more Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park.” Our changing climate, he said, could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades and threaten such landmarks as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
According to the National Parks Service, the park system’s many fragile ecosystems are “a testament to the reality of climate change.” They said glaciers could be completely gone from Glacier National Park by 2020, park facilities in Alaska are sinking due to thawing permafrost and archaeological sites are under threat from sea-level rise.
Last week more than 150 nations signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts of that half centigrade difference has been published in the journal Earth System Dynamics. The scientists found the additional 0.5 degrees Celsius would lead to longer heatwaves—“the difference between events at the upper limit of present-day natural variability and a new climate regime”—as well as more severe droughts and, in the tropics, decreased crop yield and the potential demise of all coral reefs. The extra 0.5 degrees Celsius could also mean that global sea levels rise 10 centimeters more by 2100.
“We found significant differences for all the impacts we considered,” says the study’s lead author Carl Schleussner, a scientific advisor at Climate Analytics in Germany.
The researchers analyzed climate models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, which focused on the projected regional impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and considered 11 indicators, including extreme weather events, water availability, crop yields, coral reef degradation and sea-level rise.
They found that projected climate impacts at a 2 degrees Celsius increase are significantly more severe than at a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in some regions. In the Mediterranean, for example, fresh-water availability by 2100 would be some 10 percent lower in a 1.5 degrees Celsius world and 17 percent lower in a 2 degrees Celsius world. In Central America and West Africa, the half-degree difference could reduce maize and wheat yields by twice as much. Tropical regions would bear the brunt of the impacts of an additional half degree of warming, experiencing heat waves at about twice the global rate. Those events could last up to three months at 2 degrees Celsius, compared with two months at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the researchers say.
Tropical coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the half degree increase. By 2100, some reefs might adapt to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but the larger increase would put nearly all of them at risk of severe degradation from coral bleaching.
EPA Moves Forward with Clean Energy Incentives Program
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sent a proposal on the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), an optional program included in the Clean Power Plan that rewards states for early investment in certain renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in 2020 and 2021, to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The move is the final step before the CEIP can be formally proposed to the public (subscription).
The EPA released details on the draft CEIP as part of the final Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in August. But, earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the Clean Power Plan.
“Many states and tribes have indicated that they plan to move forward voluntarily to work to cut carbon pollution from power plants and have asked the agency to continue providing support and developing tools that may support those efforts, including the CEIP,” the EPA said. “Sending this proposal to OMB for review is a routine step and it is consistent with the Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan.”
Pleasant Weather Affecting Americans’ View of Climate Change
A new study in the journal Nature finds that 80 percent of Americans live in counties where the weather is more pleasant than four decades ago. This mild temperature trend, the study says, is increasingly preferred, lessening many Americans’ concern about climate change.
“Rising temperatures are ominous symptoms of global climate change, but Americans are experiencing them at times of the year when warmer days are welcomed,” said study co-author Patrick J. Egan, an associate professor at New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics. He adds that “whereas weather patterns in recent decades have served as a poor source of motivation for Americans to demand a policy response to climate change, public concern may rise once people’s everyday experiences of climate change effects start to become less pleasant.”
Conducted by New York and Duke universities, the study examined each county in every U.S. state from 1974 to 2013—assessing the mildness of winters, rainfall averages, and humidity and heat intensity during summer months. It found that 99 percent of Americans live in places where the average January temperature increased.
“Here in the U.S., when we’re experiencing ice storms, the idea of a 1.5 or 2 degree rise might sound like good news,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University. As a result, she said, scientists need to reconsider their messages.