President Donald Trump is not considering a national carbon tax proposal that a group of Republicans discussed in February. A White House official told GreenWire in an e-mail that although the group of Republican leaders visited the White House to discuss their proposal that “the Trump Administration is not considering a carbon tax.”
The plan had called for an increase in 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.
The Hill reports that White House advisors, along with National Economic Council (NEC) Director Gary Cohn, met with the group led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
“Part of the NEC’s responsibility in coordinating economic policy for the president is to listen to a range of viewpoints on various issues,” said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. “The Trump administration is not considering a carbon tax.”
Nominee for Supreme Court Sheds Little Light on How He Would Weigh Environmental Issues
The Senate hearing began this week for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant in February 2016 by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. How Gorsuch may weigh environmental issues is difficult to discern due to his slender case record on energy and climate topics.
“His record is kind of skimpy,” said Peter McGrath, a member of the Moore & VanAllen law firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s hard to predict where he might rule.”
His third day of Senate testimony has revealed little about how Gorsuch might consider specific issues. He repeatedly said that it is his duty to “apply the law impartially.”
He has been skeptical of a judicial doctrine whereby government agencies’ interpretation of ambiguous statutes prevails unless it is unreasonable—the so-called Chevron deference. Chevron has become the basis of the legal argument for many environmental cases since the 1980s. But according to a concurring opinion Gorsuch wrote last year, the doctrine empowers bureaucrats to “swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power” and to “concentrate federal power” in a way with which the framers of the Constitution would have disagreed.
On day two of his Senate hearing, Gorsuch may have partly clarified his stance on the legal doctrine.
“Scientists, biologists, chemists—the experts get great deference from the courts,” Gorsuch said. “The only question is who decides what the law is.”
The hearing for Gorsuch is expected to continue through Thursday and possibly into Friday. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said the plan is for the full Senate to vote on Gorsuch by Easter.
Complex Picture of Carbon Emissions Emerges; Record Temps Continue
Thanks to a combination of stricter emissions regulations, a decline in the use of coal, cheaper natural gas and a rise in clean energy, climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions—totaling 32.1 metric gigatons in 2016—have remained flat for the third consecutive year despite 3.1 percent growth in the global economy over the same period, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced on Monday. The biggest drop came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3 percent, while the economy grew 1.6 percent. Carbon dioxide output also declined 1 percent in China, where the economy grew by more than 6 percent, showing that the world’s two largest energy users and carbon emitters may be able to balance economic growth with emissions reductions. The decreases offset increases in most of the rest of world.
“These three years of flat emissions in a growing global economy signal an emerging trend and that is certainly a cause for optimism, even if it is too soon to say that global emissions have definitely peaked,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “They are also a sign that market dynamics and technological improvements matter.”
In 2016, renewables, particularly hydro, supplied more than half the growth in global electricity demand. The overall increase in the world’s nuclear net capacity last year was the highest since 1993, with new reactors becoming operational in China, the United States, South Korea, India, Russia and Pakistan. And coal demand fell worldwide but particularly in the United States, where it was down 11 percent in 2016 and where, for the first time, more electricity was generated from natural gas than from coal.
Although positive for air pollution, the emissions pause, said the IEA, is insufficient to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius, the cutoff that scientists say helps us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Transparent, predictable policies are needed worldwide to ensure temperatures do not rise above 2 degrees Celsius.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday announced that last month’s average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average of 53.9 degrees Fahrenheit, making February 2017 the second warmest, behind last February, in 137 years of record keeping.
On the heels of this announcement, the annual State of the Global Climate report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also showed that 2016 was the warmest year on record. The El Niño weather phenomenon contributed 0.1 to 0.2 degrees to the longer-term warming driven by carbon dioxide emissions.
“The year 2016 was the warmest on record—a remarkable 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, which is 0.06 degrees Celsius above the previous record set in 2015,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas. “This increase in global temperatures is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system. Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise, and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year.”
According to WMO, provisional data also indicates that there has been no easing in the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide despite the fading of 2016’s strong El Niño conditions, a phenomenon in the Pacific that increases global temperatures and affects weather patterns.
“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system,” said David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme. “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”
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 Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits challenging EPA regulations, including limits on carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Many of the cases are pending in the courts, creating “serious conflicts of interest,” said Delaware Senator Tom Carver the day before the vote. On Tuesday, Oklahoma asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to replace Pruitt in the Clean Power Plan lawsuit with the state’s new attorney general.
In his first speech to EPA staff on Tuesday, Pruitt said, “I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment. We don’t have to choose between the two.”
He steered clear of specifics about the Trump administration’s energy policies, instead hinting at some agency reforms, saying that the agency has a responsibility to “avoid abuses that occur sometimes” in rulemaking, and he stressed the importance of following the “rule of law” and in partnering with states.
“I seek to ensure that we engender the trust of those at the state level,” he said (subscription).
Those comments echoed Pruitt’s first interview as EPA administrator, in which he told the Wall Street Journal that he intends to restore power to states, that environmental laws were not meant to be a “one-size-fits-all model,” and that “the state departments of environmental quality have an enormous role to play” as well as suggested that the public has trust issues with the EPA’s procedure for producing studies and cost-benefit analyses.
“The citizens just don’t trust that EPA is honest with these numbers,” he said. “Let’s get real, objective data, not just do modeling. Let’s vigorously publish and peer-review science. Let’s do honest cost-benefit work. We need to restore the trust.”
During the interview, Pruitt appeared to contradict his confirmation hearing testimony by questioning EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, saying that “the courts have seriously called into question the legality” of both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, which clarifies the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. Both rules may be targets of future executive actions. Although the order may not cancel the Clean Power Plan outright, it would mark the first step in weakening the Obama-era climate rule.
The Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the EPA possesses authority to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act—an authority that the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on the environment is looking to roll back (subscription).
Senate Democrats had sought to delay Pruitt’s Senate confirmation vote, saying lawmakers could afford to wait a few days to learn more about Pruitt’s ties to the oil and gas industry, a reference to an Oklahoma judge’s ruling, that required Pruitt to hand over nearly 3,000 e-mails related to his communications with the industry, the subject of a public records lawsuit. The Center for Media and Democracy published those e-mails yesterday, two years after Pruitt initially refused to release them. The e-mails share close ties to the oil and gas industry. AP detailed a few of the ways in which those e-mails show how Pruitt and his staff coordinated their legal strategy with oil and gas industry executives and advocacy groups funded by those profiting from fossil fuels to fight federal efforts to curb carbon emissions.
Study Examines Spill Risk of Hydraulically Fractured Wells
A new analysis led by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, which appeared Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, concludes that making states spill data more uniform and accessible could provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills at hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells.
“… Reporting requirements differ across states, requiring considerable effort to make the data usable for analysis,” said Lauren Patterson, policy associate at the Nicholas Institute and the study’s lead author. “Given the rapid recent development of unconventional oil and gas development, data are scarce on both how often spills happen, where in the process they occur, and what caused them.”
“The presence of a spill,” she added, “does not mean an adverse impact; many spills were small or contained. The data on containment and potential impacts varied between states and over time, making it difficult to do more than report on the number of spills.”
It identifies 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania during a 10-year period (2005 and 2014). The work also shows that the range of requirements makes it impossible to compare states or come up with a comprehensive national picture. For example, Colorado and New Mexico require spills of more than 210 gallons to be reported to the state, whereas North Dakota calls for any spill of more than 42 gallons to be documented.
Making this state-level data more uniform could help regulators and industry reduce future spills.
“Analyses like this one are so important, to define and mitigate risk to water supplies and human health,” said Kate Konschnik, co-author on the paper from Harvard Law School’s Environmental Policy Initiative. “Writing state reporting rules with these factors in mind is critical, to ensure that the right data are available—and in an accessible format—for industry, states and the research community.”
Singapore Commits, States Consider Carbon Tax
A proposed carbon tax by a group of Republican lawmakers—the Climate Leadership Council—hasn’t made much headway with Congress since its introduction earlier this month, but others are starting to think about the concept.
State lawmakers in California are debating whether to extend the current cap-and-trade system beyond 2020, or replace it with a carbon tax—or cap and tax. Like the cap-and-trade system, this alternative strategy would place a cap on emissions that would decline each year, but it would also tax all emissions at the EPA-set social cost of carbon, or $50 per ton in 2030. And, ClimateWire reports, Washington state has proposed a $25-per-ton carbon tax to bolster the state budget. A second proposal to impose a $15-per-ton tax is also on that state’s legislative agenda (subscription).
“The most economically efficient and fair way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to set a carbon tax, so that emitters will take the necessary actions,” said Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. “Singapore is vulnerable to rises in sea level due to climate change. Together with the international community, we have to play our part to protect our living environment.”
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.
The United Nations agency charged with understanding weather and climate released new findings indicating the world experienced above average temperatures from 2001 to 2010. In fact, the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest since modern meteorological measurement began in 1850.
“Rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are changing our climate, with far-reaching implications for our environment and our oceans, which are absorbing both carbon dioxide and heat,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud, who noted many extremes could be explained by natural variations, but that rising emissions of man-made greenhouse gases also played a role.
The report analyzed global and regional trends as well as extreme weather events, finding land and sea temperatures averaged 58 degrees Fahrenheit compared with the long-term average of 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit indicated by weather records dating back to 1881.
Release of the report comes just days after President Barack Obama committed to “redouble” efforts to forge an international climate agreement at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Warsaw, which will attempt to establish a framework for rules governing industry-based carbon markets and non-market programs after 2020, Bloomberg reports.
China, U.S. Make Carbon Deal
On Wednesday, China and the United States—which account for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—agreed to a non-binding plan aimed at cutting carbon emissions from the largest sources in both countries. The deal was made at the U.S.–China Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. a month after the countries agreed to phase out hydroflurocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. The plan targets five initiatives, to be developed by a working group with officials from both countries. The initiatives focuses on improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, collection and management of greenhouse gas data, smart grid promotion and advancement of carbon capture and storage technology.
“Both countries are acting actively in transforming their growth models,” said Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese team and vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission. “Under the context of sustainable development, both countries are taking active measures in addressing climate change and in improving the environment. I think the measures we have taken are working towards each other for the same objective and have created a very good political foundation for our cooperation in climate change …”
The plan, which won’t be finalized until October, is intended to include more aggressive measures to limit output of emissions from coal-fired power plants. A new study released prior to the agreement links heavy air pollution from coal burning to shortened lifespans for residents in northern China.
In the U.S., Obama placed carbon standards for power plants among top priorities in a recent climate action plan speech in which he called for a revised draft of the proposed rule for new plants by September. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent an updated emissions rule for new power plants to the White House. The contents, which remain confidential, come ahead of Obama’s September date request. Once the new source rule is finalized, it will trigger a requirement under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate existing fossil-fuel plants.
Vitter Drops McCarthy Filibuster Threat
“I see no further reason to block Gina McCarthy’s nomination, and I’ll support moving to an up-or-down vote on her nomination,” said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, after acknowledging the EPA had sufficiently answered requests he made in connection with McCarthy’s nomination.
Although McCarthy still faces a hold on her nomination from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Vitter’s announcement signals a step forward for Obama’s climate change policies that curb emissions from existing and future power plants. The president will rely on McCarthy to lead the agency in crafting rules that support those policies.
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.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its predictions for hurricane activity, ahead of the official start of the storm season June 1. In the Atlantic, NOAA forecasts an active season with 13 to 20 named storms. Seven to 11 of those storms, NOAA said, could actually develop into Category 1 or higher hurricanes. As many as three to six of them have the potential to become Category 3 or higher hurricanes.
NOAA’s predictions for the 2013 hurricane season are comparable to those of other independent groups such as AccuWeather.com and Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center. All cite a similar cocktail of conditions that set the stage for a more active season.
“This year, oceanic and atmospheric conditions in the Atlantic basin are expected to produce more and stronger hurricanes,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “These conditions include weaker wind shear, warmer Atlantic waters and conducive wind patterns coming from Africa.”
Regulating Carbon Emissions
The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has completed its study of the economic and environmental effects of a carbon tax, which would place a fee on oil, gas and coal with the goal of reducing harmful emissions. The report not only looks at the impact of a carbon tax, but also at how large the tax should be and how the revenue would be spent.
Taxing fossil fuels, the CBO found, would increase gasoline and power costs. Specifically, a carbon tax of $20 per ton would increase gasoline prices by about 20 cents a gallon and electricity bills by 16 percent, on average. The impact of these hikes—especially for low-income households—could be reduced or eliminated, (subscription) depending on how the revenue was spent.
In California, the cost of carbon is starting to rise. The state’s Air Resources Board held its third cap-and-trade auction, selling out 2013 permits at a record price. Still, some debate exists about how revenue from the country’s first emissions trading scheme would be spent.
Jackson to Lead Apple’s Environmental Efforts
Lisa Jackson, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, will serve as Apple’s top environmental advisor, company CEO Tim Cook announced Tuesday. Cook was going over Apple’s environmental efforts when he referenced the hire on stage at a technology conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, noting Jackson will be coordinating efforts across the company.
“Apple has shown how innovation can drive real progress by removing toxics from its products, incorporating renewable energy in its data center plans, and continually raising the bar for energy efficiency in the electronics industry,” Jackson told the Washington Post in an e-mail. “I look forward to helping support and promote these efforts, as well as leading new ones in the future aimed at protecting the environment.”
Progress forward for Jackson’s potential successor is still in limbo, and Business Week notes that Gina McCarthy’s fate is not entirely in her own hands. In particular, much of the data that EPW Ranking Republican David Vitter is insisting be released before he would acquiesce to her consideration is not even in the control of the agency. Instead, it is possessed by Harvard University and protected by confidentiality agreements between the University and subjects of the study. The Competitive Enterprise Institute also is now suing to obtain McCarthy’s text messages from days on which she testified before Congress.
Amid discussion of gun control, immigration reform and deficit reduction, President Barack Obama touched on his agenda for energy and climate in his State of the Union address Tuesday. Picking up where he left off in his second inaugural address, Obama took his focus on climate change one step further, calling on Congress to enact legislation to cut carbon pollution and increase clean energy production. He made it clear he intends to act with or without lawmakers.
“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama said. “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Topping the list of actions for Congress: a market-based solution similar to cap-and trade legislation John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on a few years ago. A cap-and-trade system—like the one established in California—would create a cap, or limit, on industrial greenhouse gas emissions that would decrease over time. At the federal level, it died in the Senate in 2010. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer rolled out a bill that would levy a fee on large fossil fuel facilities—building off the momentum of the State of the Union (subscription required). Wednesday the Environment and Public Works Committee held a briefing to discuss the latest findings in climate science research.
During the speech, Obama offered no details on steps he would take if Congress fails to act. While there was no mention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of power plants, The National Journal reports he is on track to use his executive authority to introduce rules for controlling carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act this year. This would go beyond mandates currently proposed for new facilities.
Energy Trust Would Drive New Research to Reduce Oil Dependence
In addition to taking executive action to curb climate change, Obama proposed using the revenues from federal oil and gas production to fund an Energy Security Trust. This trust would “drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” The $2 billion investment would support research into a range of technologies, including homegrown biofuels and electric vehicles. It would not require expanding drilling. The Hill notes that creating such a trust would require an Act of Congress, and some Republican lawmakers are already calling the plan a “nonstarter.”
Obama also wants to work with Congress to encourage cleaner-burning natural gas. “The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” he said. “We need to encourage that. And that’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water.” Merrill Matthews at Forbes is skeptical of Obama’s promises to expedite the permitting process for oil and gas drilling, accusing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of withdrawing public lands that had already undergone a lengthy environmental review and been approved for oil and gas leasing.
Is the Speech a Roadmap for 2013?
The answers are mixed. Some liked what they heard. Success of the address, USA Today reports, depends on the success of the policies. The President has delivered variable results on proposals he’s put forth in four previous State of the Union addresses, reports Politico. With Republicans in control of the House, CBS News’s Brian Montopoli says a resurrection of a cap-and-trade bill like the one Obama proposed in 2009 is doubtful.
Meanwhile, a new national poll by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions suggests many Americans haven’t formed an opinion about a cap-and-trade approach; with support low, 36 percent are neither for nor against. It also found only 29 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat support a carbon tax and 64 percent strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars. However, the percentage of Americans who think the climate is changing, and that the change is a result of human activity, have reached their highest levels since 2007.
Populations and livelihoods—mostly in developing countries—will suffer as average global temperatures continue to rise. This is according to a study, conducted by the humanitarian organization DARA, which found climate change could cost the world more than $1.2 trillion annually and contribute to the deaths of more than 100 million people if action against climate change isn’t taken. Together, the cost of air pollution and climate change could rise to 3.2 percent of the global GDP by 2030, with developing countries suffering losses closer to 11 percent. Timothy B. Lee at Forbes argues that “lazy” reporting on the study has conflated deaths from traditional air pollution and those from climate change. A close reading of the study, he said, suggests that climate change alone would only kill about 12 million people. “Now obviously 12 million deaths is still a lot,” Lee says. “If the rest of their calculations pan out, that’s still a good argument for taking action on climate change.”
Meanwhile, two House Democrats, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, have released a report highlighting the recording-breaking weather events of 2012 to try and build congressional momentum to address climate change. Its release, Think Progress reports, comes at a time “when political resistance to climate action is at an all-time high and both political candidates avoid speaking openly on the issue, ” despite polls showing that some voters want more action on climate. A Nature editorial argues that if President Obama wins a second term, he will need to “take on the political opposition and … [lay] out a clear vision for the future” for how to deal with climate change.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous battle between media outlets over bias in coverage has not ignored the climate issue. Fox News’ and the Wall Street Journal’s opinion sections are under fire for what others characterize as misleading coverage of climate change. Media Matters runs down a list of 10 leading scientists’ public criticisms of Fox News coverage the last two years and offers guidance on navigating the misinformation.
EU Airlines Bill Passes, While Debate on Carbon Tax Continues
A bill shielding United States airlines from participating in the European Union’s (EU) emission reduction scheme was passed unanimously by the Senate, although it has yet to be reconciled with a similar House proposal. The EU scheme, which went into effect in early 2012, was projected by MIT to add between $3 and $6 to the cost of a flight bound from New York to London. Under the bill, all airlines flying in and out of European airports would be required to cut emissions or purchase allowances to cover them in order to curb emissions 20 percent by 2020. While the Senate vote would block U.S. airlines from complying, an amendment added to the bill requires that the ruling be reconsidered if the EU changes its plan or the U.S. introduces its own measures.
While some have found a carbon tax to curb emissions to be risky—claiming that it could be potentially damaging to the economy—a new report says imposing a $20 per metric ton carbon tax in the U.S. has the potential to reduce the country’s budget deficit by half in roughly a decade.
The Fate of Wind Energy
Wind power makes up roughly 3 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. In Washington, city government is now running 100 percent on wind. Sam Brooks, head of Washington’s Energy and Sustainability Division, says the district buys about $52 million of electricity each year—enough to power about 90,000 homes.
As the Dec. 31 cut off for tax credits tied to wind turbines looms, the New York Times says the wind industry is “withering.” Ed Dolan calls wind power a “success story of green energy.” In his blog, EconoMonitor, he urges decision makers to rethink energy and tax policy as the subsidy deadline grows near. Others aren’t in agreement, and see the tax credits’ potential expiration as a step toward reducing the deficit.
A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.
Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.
Climate Change in the Stone Age
Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.
In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.
PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”
Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.
It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released long-awaited greenhouse gas rules for new power plants this week. Using the Clean Air Act, the agency standard would set the first national limits on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions new power plants can emit. The EPA proposed the rule after delaying it several times since July 2011.
Power plants are the largest source of CO2 in the nation, accounting for approximately 40 percent of these emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration. The rule basically requires new coal plants to emit the same amount of CO2 as an average plant fueled by natural gas—causing U.S. coal shares to slip following the announcement. While some in Congress already are threatening to nullify the rule, plummeting natural gas prices had much of the same effect, driving the decline of existing coal-fired facilities and giving way to power plants fueled by natural gas.
The news was met with mixed reactions. Some were calling it the “demise of coal-fired power generation” and a “job killer,” while others viewed it as a step in the right direction to fight climate change.
Energy: At What Cost?
The New York Times describes how technological breakthroughs in natural gas and oil extraction, coupled with efficiency, are “inching” the U.S. toward energy independence—but at what environmental cost? Nearly two years after an explosion on an offshore oil platform sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, deepwater drilling is picking up. But a leak on an oil rig in the North Sea prompted some to think back to BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon Disaster, the world’s worst marine oil spill. Although this leak doesn’t appear to be as serious as the BP spill, some are predicting it could take six months before the problem is fixed.
Meanwhile a new survey says 63 percent of Americans think it’s possible to develop shale oil reserves without harming the environment. But it appears the controversial drilling method may undermine attempts to store carbon dioxide underground.
Energy and environment also took center stage in Santa Barbara as CEOs of industry and environmental organizations converged at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference. Repeated throughout the conference was the idea that public policy is inadequate to the task of tackling the world’s energy challenges. Yet when pressed, Tesla Motors founder and clean tech notable Elon Musk said public policies such as a carbon tax are “ideal.”
Carbon Caps: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
In California, where the nation’s only economy-wide cap-and-trade program is moving forward, officials announced plans to postpone the program’s first allowance auction from Aug. 15 to Nov. 14. The later start date will give California more time to link its program with that of its Western Climate Initiative (WCI) partner, Quebec. WCI just appointed Anita Burke as organization’s first executive director. Forward progress will be challenging because of a lawsuit challenging the cap’s use of offsets, or reductions outside the cap. The lawsuit alleges that offsets represent reductions that would have occurred with or without public policies.
Meanwhile the U.S. airline industry dropped its unsuccessful lawsuit against Europe’s cap-and-trade program. The European Union emission trading scheme seeks to bring airlines taking off and landing in Europe under its emissions cap. Airlines would be required to purchase allowances at auction. The move comes as European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard quietly visited Washington this week to discuss transatlantic climate issues, including U.S. airlines’ opposition to the program.
In dueling opinion pieces, the Washington Post renews calls for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, while the Wall Street Journal says models cannot pin much to climate during the past decade. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has attempted to more accurately model the future impacts of climate change.
Extreme weather—the same that may be bringing bats to Texas and causing birds to adjust their ranges—is linked to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to two reports. In fact, climate change is amplifying risk of storms, rising seas and floods—particularly in small island states and poor regions. Reports such as these have spurred an effort to identify trees that could thrive as climate change develops. Human-caused climate change may also further the spread of Chagas’ disease and potentially worsen autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis, impairing cognitive function, according to new studies. The latter study found that warmer temperatures lower mental processing speeds and memory recall.
Although Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard had promised before to not enact a carbon tax, floods, bush fires, heat waves, and drought reawakened discussion about putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
This week, Australia’s House of Representatives narrowly passed a carbon tax, sending the bill to the country’s Senate, where observers say it is almost certain to pass. Supporters say Australia’s setup would have several advantages over Europe’s carbon-trading system, including a fixed price for the first three years while the fledgling system gets going, which could allow Australia to claim it is the world leader on climate legislation.
However, Australia is currently one of the biggest emitters per capita, with 80 percent of the country’s electricity coming from coal. Australia is also the world’s biggest coal exporter, and as such has the coal industry reacting fiercely to the proposed law.
Debt-wracked Greece is launching a plan—with Germany’s help—to attempt to boost its economy out of recession by building huge solar power installations. “Project Helios,” named after the Greek god of the sun, is designed to attract 20 billion euros in foreign investment—and a large portion of the electricity produced may leave the country, headed to Germany.
However, the plan for exporting the electricity has some snags, critics say—including the need for billions of euros of investment in Greece’s power grid. Nonetheless, the president of the Hellenic Association of Photovoltaic Companies said the plan is more realistic than Desertec, a proposal to supply Europe with electricity from huge solar power farms in North Africa.
Energy for All
In preparation for 2012—which the United Nations has named the Year of Sustainable Energy for All—the International Energy Agency released its first assessment of the cost of ending energy poverty. The price tag: $48 billion a year—about 3 percent of the yearly global energy investment, and about five times as much as is spent now trying to bring energy to the world’s poor.
Expanding electricity to about 1.5 billion people who lack it now would add less than 1 percent to the world’s emissions, the report estimated, and the spread could be driven by the private sector, with the proper incentives from governments, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, faced raucous opposition at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. Protests against the project outside the White House dwindled in September, but the project remains a political headache for the Obama Administration.
More Nuclear Zones
Notwithstanding the retreat from nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, and perhaps Japan, the world is still headed for a nuclear renaissance, said a report by Britain’s Royal Society. However, the report argued there should be more emphasis on controlling proliferation of nuclear materials and better storage of spent fuel to avoid accidents like that at Fukushima.
A new bill in Berkeley, California, is questioning the city’s long-time stance as a “nuclear free zone,” which uses no nuclear power and lets no nuclear weapons pass through it. But one of its city council members says the 1986 law causes more problems than it is worth and should be repealed.