The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

On energy:

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.”

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 Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

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.”

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 Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After a unanimous vote by the California Air Resources Board, the state adopted the most comprehensive cap-and-trade system in the country, a key part of a 2006 global warming law that had yet to be implemented. The system will cover 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and allows businesses to counterbalance up to 8 percent of their emissions by buying offset credits.

The state is making itself a guinea pig for climate legislation and hopes to inspire other states to follow suit—a precedent the state has set with other environmental legislation.

At first, most of the emissions credits will be given out free, but it’s expected by 2016 to be a $10 billion market.

Slow Growth

After the economic crash of 2008, the growth of clean energy slowed—and the outlook for the rest of the decade is single-digit growth, according to analyses by IHS Emerging Energy Research and others. A major factor has been that cash-strapped governments have cut back on subsidies that helped drive the growth in renewables.

The U.K. reshuffled its renewable subsidies, taking away from onshore wind and hydro power, and giving more to tidal and biomass power plants. Scotland—which sets its subsidies separately from the rest of the U.K., and which boasts some of the world’s best wind and tidal resources—also made subsidy support adjustments.

Industry experts fear the U.K. may soon slash solar subsidies by half—after already cutting them earlier this year—so they are encouraging people to install solar systems now.

But the World Wildlife Fund argues that high growth of renewables is still possible, and the U.K. could get nearly all of its energy from renewables by 2030.

In the U.S., solar industry jobs grew about 7 percent in the past year—much faster than job growth in the whole economy, but only about a quarter of the rate that the industry had expected, according to the Solar Foundation’s newly released National Jobs Census.

High-Tech Efficiency

In Europe, “business as usual will not be an option for most energy utilities,” according to McKinsey analysts who argued that energy demand is reaching a peak, and existing technologies could drastically cut consumption. In response, utilities should look to other services to keep their revenue up, such as selling solar panels, insulation, or central control units that track and manage a building’s electricity consumption.

One company is already trying to make such products cool. Nest Labs, a well funded start up founded by former Apple employees, have created a thermostat that studies your habits to help adjust the temperature to save energy.

Climate Change Conundrum

Climate change could exceed dangerous levels in some parts of the world during the lifetime of many people alive today, according to research papers published in the journal Nature.

University of Washington Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner argued in Yale Environment 360 that humanity’s institutions aren’t up to the ethical challenge presented by environmental change. As these problems get worse, he argues, we might see apush for technological fixes such as geoengineering.

Some scientists are looking into such methods, and a U.K. group had planned a test flight of a balloon tethered to a hose—the kind that could shoot reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, scatter sunlight and potentially cool the planet. But that group postponed its test until spring to allow “more engagement with stakeholders”—which New Scientist argued is crucial.

Most of the public is not against such research on “solar radiation management” according to a new survey. But critics say the survey may be some biased toward geoengineering research.

Skeptic Changes Mind

A study led by a self-described climate change skeptic—physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley—released results from a re-analysis of temperature records. The “biggest surprise,” Muller said, was how closely his study matched earlier assessments, such as those by NASA and the U.K.’s Hadley Centre. Muller’s study had been hailed by climate change skeptics since it took seriously many of their criticisms.

But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Muller said “global warming is real,” and argued no one should be a skeptic about this warming any longer.

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.