As the nation prepares for the inauguration of its 45th president, environment-focused hearings for some of President-Elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees continue. They include hearings for Scott Pruitt, nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and former Oklahoma attorney general, as well as Ryan Zinke, nominee for secretary of the interior and a former Navy Seal. Rick Perry, nominee for energy secretary and former governor of Texas, will have a hearing today.
The picks appear to follow Trump’s campaign promises to roll back EPA regulations and increase drilling on public lands. At his Tuesday hearing, Zinke said he would consider expansion of energy drilling and mining on federal lands but would ensure sensitive areas remain protected. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests many Americans want the opposite. More than 60 percent of Americans would like to see the EPA’s powers preserved or strengthened and the drilling of oil on public lands to hold steady or drop.
Here is what Pruitt and Zinke had to say on top environmental topics:
On climate change:
Zinke: “First of all, the climate is changing, that’s undisputable,” Zinke said at his hearing, adding that he and his wife had seen evidence of glaciers retreating during a visit to Glacier National Park in Montana. “The second thing is man has had an influence. I think that’s undisputable as well. So, climate is changing, man is an influence. I think where there’s debate on it is what that influence is and what can we do about it.”
Pruitt: “Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be … I do not believe climate change is a hoax.”
Pruitt: “First, we must reject the false paradigm that if you are pro-energy, you are anti-environment and if you are pro-environment, you are anti-energy. I utterly reject the narrative.”
He said he would support the U.S. renewable fuels program, which requires biofuels like ethanol to be blended into gasoline, but said the program needed some tweaks.
Zinke: “The war on coal, I believe, is real. All-of-the-above is the correct (energy) policy. Coal is a great part of that energy mix. I’m also a great believer that we should invest in research and development on coal—because we know we have the asset—to make it cleaner and better. We should lead the world in clean energy technology.”
On environmental regulation:
Pruitt: “Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum. We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth,” he said, adding that he would seek to give states more authority to regulate their own environmental issues.
Zinke: “The president-elect has said we want to be energy independent. I can guarantee you it is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation, than watch it be produced overseas with no regulation.”
Reports: Climate Change A Risk; Responsible for Record Warming
The issue of climate change is not one to ignore, according to recent reports on global risks by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and global temperature by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the U.K.’s Met Office.
In the WEF’s annual report, which is based on an assessment of 30 global risks by 750 experts from business, academia and non-governmental organizations, climate change was labeled the third major global trend. Failing to adapt to or mitigate climate change and a host of other climate-connected risks, including water and food crises and involuntary migration, also rank in the top 10.
In its annual State of the Climate report, NOAA found that global temperatures are the highest since scientists started tracking them in 1880. NASA and the U.K.’s Met Office came to the same conclusion.
“The NOAA and NASA are two keepers of the world’s temperature data and independently produce a record of Earth’s surface temperatures, as well as changes based on historical observations over ocean and land,” NOAA officials said in a statement. “Consistency between the two independent analyses, as well as analyses produced by other countries, increases confidence in the accuracy of such data, the assessment of the data and resulting conclusions.”
The NOAA report suggests that the average temperature in 2016 was 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, making it the second-warmest year on record. Temperature increases in 2016 had links to El Niño, which waned in the spring, as well as human-caused global warming, which has been leading to an array of climate shifts in the U.S.
“A single warm year is something of a curiosity,” said Deke Arndt, chief of global climate monitoring for NOAA. “It’s really the trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes.”
National Academy of Sciences Recommends Social Cost of Carbon Makeover
A December memo prepared by Trump’s energy transition head Thomas Pyle suggested that the social cost of carbon—the U.S. government’s best estimate of how much society gains over the long term by cutting each ton of carbon dioxide emissions—will likely be a target for lowering. The estimate factors into justifications for various environmental policies, such as regulation of power plant emissions, and it has helped shape 79 regulations since 2010. A report released last week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine details a new framework to arrive at that estimate, one aimed at strengthening the estimate’s scientific basis and transparency.
“I think the report has laid out an important blueprint for how to update the most important number that you’ve never heard of,” said University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone, who served as a reviewer. “Social and economic understanding of climate change has advanced greatly in the last six years, since the original social cost of carbon was released, and the report identifies important ways to take advantage of those improvements in our understanding.”
The report recommends that the federal government use a framework in which each step of the social cost of carbon calculation is developed as one of four separate but integrated “modules”: the socioeconomic module; the climate module, which translates emissions changes into temperature changes; the damages module, which estimates the net impact of temperature changes in dollar terms; and the discounting module. Instead of using a fixed discount rate—the exact rate to use is highly contentious—the discounting module would incorporate the relationship between economic growth and discounting for calculating discount rates, thereby accounting for uncertainty about them over long timeframes.
The recommendation to “unbundle” the mix of models currently used would make transparent the assumptions and uncertainties in each step of the calculation and, according to Myles R. Allen, one the report’s authors, clarify where data ends and choices begin.
“There are obviously political decisions which need to be made in any calculation like the social cost of carbon,” said Allen. “On the other hand, the way the climate system responds to greenhouse gas emission levels is not really up for political discussion.”
Last month, a 24-state coalition led by Texas and West Virginia state attorneys general—leading litigators in the fight against the Clean Power Plan—penned a letter to President-Elect Donald Trump asking him to issue an order to stop working to enforce the rule to reduce emissions from existing power plants. More recently, officials from states and several cities have sent a letter countering this earlier advice, and instead urged Trump to preserve the rule and continue defending it in court.
The Clean Power Plan is presently stayed while a 10-judge panel reviews a legal challenge. A decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rare “en banc” review is expected this year.
“We advocate that you reject misguided advice that the Clean Power Plan be discarded; advice that, if followed, would assuredly lead to more litigation,” the latest letter reads. “Instead, we urge you to support the defense of this critically-important rule and the implementation of its carefully constructed strategies to reduce emissions from the nation’s largest sources.”
If politics or litigation forces the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use other authorities under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a new working paper by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University of North Carolina’s Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Energy says the EPA might consider using the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) program.
“The language of the Clean Air Act gives the EPA a lot of flexibility to enact a program for greenhouse gases,” said Christina Reichert, a Nicholas Institute policy counsel who co-authored the paper.
The paper examines the opportunities and challenges associated with regulation of greenhouse gases under the NAAQS program, drawing a comparison with the Clean Power Plan’s approach under a different section of the Clean Air Act. Though a program under NAAQS wouldn’t mirror the Clean Power Plan, it could support many of its key provisions, including trading-ready plans. Although use of the NAAQS program would present challenges—such as permitting small sources—it is feasible, say the paper authors.
Climate Policy and Trump
In December, the Electoral College confirmed the presidency of Donald Trump. With just weeks before his inauguration, ClimateWire took a look back at the Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, and other highlights of climate policy in 2016, and other media outlets contemplated what 2017 holds.
Mongabay’s Mike Gaworecki lays out eight issues to watch, including whether the Trump administration will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. And Nicholas Institute, Harvard, and University of North Carolina researchers outlined six key areas of federal policy and, for each area, identified the issues Trump must address that will shape the future of the electricity sector. This month, we’re awaiting Senate hearings for some of Trump’s environmental picks—Scott Pruitt (presently slated to lead the EPA) and Rex Tillerson (tapped as secretary of state).
Study: Flood Risk Pattern Changing with Warming Climate
According to research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the threat of flooding in the northern half of the United States is growing as the Earth warms.
Using stream gauge data and satellite images, two University of Iowa scientists found that this pattern is likely due to shifting rainfall patterns and the amount of water in the ground. The study’s 2,042 stream gauge readings between 1985 and 2015 showed a measurable increase in the number of flood events in the north over the last 30 years.
“It’s almost like a separation where generally flood risk is increasing in the upper half of the U.S. and decreasing in the lower half,” said study co-author Gabriele Villarini in reference to the finding that satellite data showed groundwater increasing in the north and decreasing in the Southwest and western U.S., regions that are experiencing prolonged droughts. “It’s not a uniform pattern, and we want to understand why we see this difference.”
Although the authors have yet to identify the reasons that some areas are getting more, or less, rainfall than others, they believe that rains may be redistributed as regional climate changes.
The researchers hope that their findings could change communication of changing flood patterns, which typically have been described in terms of stream flow, or the amount of water flowing per unit of time.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will not circulate Thursday, December 29, in honor of the New Year’s Holiday. It will return January 5.
Invoking the so-called 12(a) provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, President Obama announced a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in more than 100 million acres of the Atlantic and Arctic. The ban affects oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska as well as in a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean from New England to Virginia. The announcement was made in conjunction with one by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also put a freeze on leasing, agreeing to make Canada’s Arctic waters free of drilling—a policy subject to review every five years.
“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth,” Obama said. “They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited. By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region—at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”
He cited the region’s low contribution to U.S. energy as a reason for the ban.
“In 2015, just 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic and Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the Arctic will not occur,” Obama said.
Politico reports that Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act includes no language that allows future presidents to undo the withdrawal of offshore areas from future leasing but fossil fuel advocates will likely argue that sufficient precedent exists for Trump to reverse the ban.
EPA Releases Drafts of Model Rules for Clean Power Plan
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday withdrew its draft proposed model rules for the Clean Power Plan from interagency review. The rules were an optional template for state implementation plans, designed to make it easier for states and power plants to use emissions trading to meet the Clean Power Plan carbon reduction goals.
“While these drafts are not final and we are not required to release them at this time, making them available now allows us to share our work to date and to respond to the states that have requested information prior to the end of the Administration,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in a blog post. “We believe that the work we have done so far may be useful at this time to the states, stakeholders and members of the public who are considering or are already implementing policies and programs that would cut carbon pollution from the power sector.”
The drafts, released in response to multiple requests from states, describe how states might use a mass- or rate-based emissions scheme under the Clean Power Plan. They will not be published in the Federal Register, and they carry no legal authority.
The Clean Power Plan is presently stayed while a ten-judge panel reviews a legal challenge. A decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rare “en banc” review is expected next year.
Report: Human-Caused Climate Change Intensified Some Extreme Weather Events in 2015
A report published by the American Meteorological Society links man-made climate change to 24 extreme weather events in 2015. The events include wildfires in Alaska, heavy rains in China, and droughts in Ethiopia. According to the report, which examined 30 events, climate change worsened 10 of last year’s deadly heat waves, three of which killed thousands of people in Egypt, India, and Pakistan.
“Without exception, all the heat-related events studied … were found to have been made more intense or likely due to human-induced climate change,” said the report compiled by 116 scientists from 18 countries using calculations based on observed data, computer simulations, and climate physics.
The study reflects an emerging area of climate research—one based on scientists’ prediction that climate change would affect the severity and frequency of extreme weather events and one that seeks to identify the likelihood that any given event was influenced by climate change.
“We do this for the same reasons we’ve always tried to understand our weather,” said Stephanie Herring, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lead editor of the new report. “We know if we can better understand why these events are happening, we can better predict and prepare for them in the future.”
The possible energy agenda for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is described in a memo prepared by Trump’s energy transition head Thomas Pyle, the president of the American Energy Alliance and the Institute for Energy Research. It highlights a “pro-energy and pro-market policies” agenda. At the top of the list of 14 policy changes is withdrawal from the Paris Agreement—the international agreement to limit global warming by cutting global carbon emissions—and the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce emissions from existing U.S. power plants.
“In response to Massachusetts v. EPA, the Obama administration found that greenhouse gas emissions harmed human health and welfare,” the memo states. “This is the regulatory predicate to the Obama administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates and Clean Power Plan and greatly expanded EPA’s power. This finding will be reconsidered and possibly revoked, marking a major blow to underpinning for many climate regulations.”
Also targeted in the memo is lifting of the coal lease moratorium, expediting approvals of LNG export terminals, moving forward with pipeline infrastructure, reassessing the environmental impacts of wind energy, reducing energy subsidies, amending the Renewable Fuel Standard, increasing federal oil and natural gas leasing and relaxing the federal fuel economy standards. Ending federal agencies’ use of the social cost of carbon—an estimate of the damage avoided from marginal reductions of carbon dioxide—when weighing the costs and benefits of new energy and environmental regulations is also mentioned.
“The Obama administration aggressively used the social cost of carbon (SCC) to help justify their regulations,” the memo states. “During the Trump Administration the SCC will likely be reviewed and the latest science brought to bear. If the SCC were subjected to the latest science, it would certainly be much lower than what the Obama administration has been using.”
The social cost of carbon also came up in another document suggestive of the future of U.S. energy policy—a questionnaire sent by Trump’s transition team to the Department of Energy that asked agency officials to identify employees and contractors who have played a role in promoting President Obama’s climate agenda, including those who worked on forging the Paris Agreement and on domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output and those who attended interagency meetings on the social cost of carbon.
Among the transition’s requests in the 74-item questionnaire, reports NPR, are e-mails about domestic and international climate talks, money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy, and names of the 20 highest-paid employees at the DOE’s national laboratories. The Energy Department on Tuesday said it would not comply with requests for names.
Trump Nominates Tillerson as Secretary of State; Perry to Lead Department of Energy
On Tuesday, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump nominated Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the Department of State—the most senior U.S. diplomat position, one responsible for enacting the U.S. government’s foreign policy (subscription).
“Mr. Tillerson knows how to manage a global organization and successfully navigate the complex architecture of world affairs and diverse foreign leaders. As Secretary of State, he will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world,” said Trump of the Texas native who has been with Exxon since graduating from the University of Texas in 1975.
The 64-year-old Tillerson has no experience in government or working as a diplomat and his position on climate change may be left of Trump’s. As the Washington Post reports, Exxon understood the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels in the 70s but only fairly recently (under Tillerson’s watch) did the company publicly acknowledge the link.
For Tillerson to win Senate approval of his nomination, he will need to counter some concerns from lawmakers in both parties about ties to Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. Specifically, some have expressed unease about his opposition to U.S. sanctions in Russia, which awarded him a friendship medal in 2013.
Also, on Tuesday, Rick Perry, former Texas governor, was tapped to head the Department of Energy as secretary. Perry, who once said he would eliminate the department when he ran for president in 2012, would replace Ernest Moniz, who has been energy secretary under the Obama administration since 2013.
Arctic Report Card: Warming Continues
“We’ve seen a year in 2016 in the Arctic like we’ve never seen before,” said Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program. The year showed “a stronger, more pronounced signal of persistent warming than any other year in our observation record.”
What changes are scientists observing? To name a few: The spring snow cover this year in the North American Arctic was the lowest since the satellite record began in 1967, and the average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900. Scientists are seeing temperature spikes during months when little, if any, sunshine is reaching the surface of the Arctic.
“Those are the periods when the Arctic should be really cold,” Mathis said. “It’s one thing for the summers to be warmer, but this is [a new] trend of the winter months setting record temperatures.”
And due to water temperatures that are colder than those further south, the Arctic Ocean is especially prone to ocean acidification. The report describes how Arctic sea ice has become younger and thinner, causing patches of dark open water to absorb more solar rays that warm the water.
It indicates the changes are influenced by long-term increases not only in global carbon dioxide, but also in air temperatures—as well as with natural seasonal and regional variability.
Just a few weeks after U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump, a critic of climate change science, told New York Times journalists he had an “open mind” on climate change, he and his daughter Ivanka met with former vice president and climate advocate Al Gore.
“I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect,” said Gore of Trump. “It was a sincere search for areas of common ground. I had a meeting beforehand with Ivanka Trump. The bulk of the time was with the president-elect, Donald Trump. I found it an extremely interesting conversation, and to be continued.”
Though Trump and Gore’s topic of discussion wasn’t directly referenced in his statement, it is speculated that climate change was on the list. The Washington Post reports that an aide to Gore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the former vice president “made clear in his statements following the election that he intended to do everything he could to work with the president-elect to ensure our nation remains a leader in the effort to address the climate crisis.”
Regarding the meeting with Ivanka, however, Gore was more forthcoming.
“It’s no secret that Ivanka Trump is very committed to having a climate policy that makes sense for our country and for our world,” Gore said. “And that was certainly evident in the conversation that I had with her before the conversation with the President-elect.”
Trump’s EPA: Leader Tapped
U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump has tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to replace current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy. The nomination seems to follow with Trump’s campaign promises to rollback EPA regulations.
“For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn,” said Trump in a statement. “As my EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, the highly respected Attorney General from the state of Oklahoma, will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.”
Pruitt, whose biography indicates he is a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” offered that he intends to run the EPA in a way that “fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”
Pruitt was one of two rumored candidates for this post who have called for significant rollbacks in regulations. He has sued the EPA over its regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act. In an interview with Reuters in September, Pruitt said that he sees the Clean Power Plan as a form of federal “coercion and commandeering” of energy policy and that his state should have “sovereignty to make decisions for its own markets.”
Warming Could Dramatically Increase Soil Carbon Losses
A study published last week in the journal Nature documents how carbon loss in soil worsens climate change. The 25-year study finds that as the planet warms, the respiration of microorganisms in soils increases, releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. The scientists’ compilation of 49 empirical studies of soil carbon emissions from plots around the world revealed that climate change will lead to the loss of at least 55 trillion kilograms of carbon from the soil by mid-century.
“It’s of the same order of magnitude as having an extra U.S. on the planet,” said Thomas Crowther, a co-author with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.
The study found that carbon losses will be greatest in colder places at high latitudes and altitudes—places that have massive carbon stocks but that have largely been missing from previous research.
Correction: In last week’s story about an Arctic Council report on climate and other changes in the Arctic, we should have said that temperatures in the region had reached 9–12 degrees Celsius (16–22 degrees Fahrenheit) above seasonal averages.
Climate-change-related environmental, ecological, and social changes in the Arctic are accelerating and are more extreme than ever recorded, undermining the sustainability of current ways of life in the region and potentially destabilizing climate and ecosystems around the world, according to a five-year report released last week by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization formed to protect the region.
“Arctic social and biophysical systems are deeply intertwined with our planet’s social and biophysical systems, so rapid, dramatic and unexpected changes in this sensitive region are likely to be felt elsewhere,” the report states. “As we are often reminded, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
The report noted that the Greenland Ice Sheet, which was thought to be resistant to climate change, is experiencing higher-than-expected thinning “over time scales of only years” due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change and that if it melts completely, global sea levels would rise an average of 7.4 meters.
The report outlines 19 “regime shifts” under way or on the horizon absent efforts to halt them. They range from sea-ice-free summers to ocean circulation changes and collapse of some Arctic fisheries.
“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the co-authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”
Trump Transition: EPA Prospects
Just days after stating his “open mind” to confronting climate change, president-elect Donald Trump was meeting with potential prospects to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would align with his campaign promises to roll back agency regulations.
Two rumored EPA leaders who have called for a significant rollback in regulations—Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and former Texas environmental regulator Kathleen Hartnett White—were scheduled to meet with Trump this week.
In an interview with McClatchy, White confirmed her consideration for the post, which she says she would take on with a new approach to address a “shifting environmental landscape.” White also shared details of her conversation with Trump.
“He wants the EPA to run more carefully, to use stronger science and be unabashedly conscientious to the effect of more and more rules on existing employment and job creation,” she said. “I have no desire to put words in his mouth. But as he is in other areas, he likes a good deal.”
Climate Change Conference in Marrakech Concludes
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22), which brought nearly 200 countries together to hammer out the details of last year’s Paris Agreement, concluded last month. What exactly came out of the two-week conference?
- A timeline for implementing 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. Countries participating in COP22 decided to complete detail setting for the agreement by 2018 and to review progress in 2017.
- The Marrakech Action Proclamation. The one-page document reaffirms countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement’s goals following the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. On the campaign trail, Trump stated intentions to end U.S. involvement in the agreement.
- Forty-eight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries pledged to turn in more ambitious targets to Paris before 2020 and to shift to 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050.
- An agreement to continue the discussion on climate finance. There’s still uncertainty surroundingthe pathway to mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, to establishing rules for reporting finance, and to scaling up adaptation finance.
- Nations also agreed on a five-year work-plan on “loss and damage” to address issues beyond climate adaptation like slow-onset impacts of climate change, non-economic losses and migration.
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.”
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
In a move that could help the United States and Canada meet pledges they made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil and gas industry methane emissions 40–45 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In Canada, the environment ministry will work with provinces and other parties to implement national regulations by 2017; in the United States, the plan calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop regulations “immediately” (subscription). Although the EPA issued a methane rule for new oil and gas sources last year, some experts and Obama administration officials believe that a regulation for existing sources is needed to meet the new reduction pledge.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue by requiring oil and gas companies to report certain data about methane output in April.
“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said.
New data suggests that annual releases of methane in the United States total nine million tons—much higher than previously thought.
The commitments to reduce emissions of methane by the United States and Canada were part of a joint statement in which Obama and Trudeau announced a range of environmental initiatives to combat climate change, expand renewable energy, and protect the Arctic region and in which they promised that their two countries would “play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades.” According to the statement, Obama and Trudeau consider the agreement reached in Paris a “turning point” in global efforts to combat climate change, and they will cooperate in implementing it, committing to signing it “as soon as feasible.”
Among the announced actions, it was the plan to reduce methane—a chemical that is many more times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that drew the most praise and criticism, reported the Los Angeles Times. Some representatives of the oil and gas industry said they were already taking steps to reduce methane leaks, and some environmental groups said a better solution would be to reduce fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing, which is linked to those leaks. Other environmental groups said methane reduction delivers a nearer-term climate payoff than cutting carbon dioxide from power plants.
Sea Level Rise Big, Underestimated
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that future sea-level increases due to climate change could displace anywhere from 4.3 to 13.1 million people in coastal communities in the U.S. by the end of the century.
“Projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea-level rise in the United States,” said study co-author Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia. Why? Earlier studies don’t account for population growth.
A second study in the journal Earth System Dynamics explores the feasibility of delaying the problem of rising seas by pumping vast quantities of ocean water onto the continent of Antarctica to thicken the ice sheet by freezing the water.
“This is not a proposition,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s a discussion. It’s supposed to initiate the discussion on how big the sea level problem really is.”
The researchers find that it would take more than 7 percent of the global energy supply just to power the pumps needed to get the water at least 435 miles inland to the Antarctic ice sheet so it could freeze—preventing the heavy, newly formed ice sheets from sliding into the ocean. That’s just one of the many hurdles to engineering, much less financing such a project, according to the Earth System Dynamics study.
“When we stop the pumping one day, additional discharge from Antarctica will increase the rate of sea-level rise even beyond the warming-induced rate,” Levermann said. “The magnitude of sea-level rise is so enormous, it turns out it is unlikely that any engineering approach imaginable can mitigate it.”
Study Finds Connection to Climate Change for Some Extreme Weather Events
A newly released report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes it easier to connect climate change with some extreme weather events. Published in the National Academies Press, the report indicates that we can now say more about the extent to which weather events have been intensified or weakened as a result of climate change.
“In the past, a typical climate scientist’s response to questions about climate change’s role in any given weather event was ‘we cannot attribute any single event to climate change,’” the report said. “The science has advanced to the point that this is no longer true as an unqualified blanket statement. In many cases, it is now often possible to make and defend quantitative statements about the extent to which human-induced climate change (or another casual factor, such as a specific mode of natural variability) has influenced either the magnitude or the probability of occurrence of specific types of events or event classes.”
Technology and the length of human climatic records have made “attribution science” possible, but it is still new. The Washington Post reports that temperature-related events allow for the strongest attribution statement since the “chain of causality from global warming to the event is shortest and simplest.”