COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”

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“A Fire Bell in the Night”

In 1820, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that the admission of Missouri as a slave state was like “a fire bell in the night” that threatened the survival of the Union. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, issued a report that sounded a similar alarm across the land.

Only a dozen years remain, according to these scientists, before the world spews so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will be impossible to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C. After that all bets are off and human civilization will be courting catastrophe.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, the consequences will “include, but are not limited to, the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Only fundamental changes in energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure can head off such a calamity. Even then it is almost certain that vast amounts of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere using technologies that are currently only in the early stages of development.

Two days after the release of the IPCC report, underscoring the urgency of the situation, Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, killing dozens of people and inflicting millions of dollars of property damage. It was the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. in terms of pressure and the fourth strongest hurricane to do so in terms of wind speed.

A harbinger of what’s to come, such storms and other extreme weather events will place ever increasing stress on American society, exacerbating class and racial divisions and heightening inequality and civic instability. The strains on American democracy are already tremendous due to a level of political polarization unprecedented since the coming of the Civil War. Accelerating climate chaos will clearly make things far worse.

“The evidence seems to be mounting,” The Atlantic  observed last week, “that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.” All the more reason, then, to head to the polls on November 6 and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do. This time let’s make sure to heed the fire bell in the night.

A Summer of Fire and Rain

Here’s a short and by no means comprehensive list of the extreme weather disasters that have taken place since the end of June, eight weeks ago:
  • More than 90 people died from the extreme heat in Quebec
  • Record rainfall in Japan caused flooding and landslides leading to at least 179 deaths
  • Over 60 wildfires raged above the Arctic Circle in Sweden
  • Thousands of people have been forced from their homes in the U.S. West, especially in California and Colorado, which have experienced unprecedented wildfires sparked by extreme heat and drought
  • An epic monsoon left more than 220,000 people homeless in southern India and killed at least 324 people
  • And in the Finger Lakes last week a “rain bomb” dropped up to 8.75 inches overnight and caused major flooding in Seneca and Schuyler Counties, destroying homes and tearing up roads
Flooding in Lodi Point last week. Photo credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, and 17 out of the warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001. “It’s not a wake-up call anymore,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “It’s now absolutely happening to millions of people around the world.”

This summer of “fire and rain,” to quote a James Taylor song, has been relentless in its violence and destruction. It feels as if what was a slow-moving calamity has accelerated into a near biblical explosion of unceasing events, each day bringing news of another indication that climate change is looking more and more like climate chaos.

How do we know these are not isolated, unrelated events but rather part of a longer-term process that is nowhere near reaching its climax? Researchers, based on climate models, are now able to draw links between extreme weather events and climate change, and even quantify them. For example, the World Weather Attribution project, an international coalition of scientists, issued a study in July concluding that Europe’s record-breaking heat wave this summer was twice as likely to have occurred because of human-caused warming.

Scientists still think that it’s not too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we undertake dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and changes in the way we live. Meanwhile, for those of us who are paying attention, the signs are all around us that the waters are not just rising; they are getting choppier and more turbulent with each passing day. What used to seem like something that would take place in the distant future is happening now.

“What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I will be living, what I am currently living,” Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, noted recently in conversation with a reporter. “We haven’t caught up to it. I haven’t caught up to it, personally.”

Sobering words, indeed, that remind us what is at stake. There is no “new normal.” Our summer of fire and rain will only get much worse going forward if we fail, in the words of Taylor’s song, to “make a stand.”

 

Falling Rocks, Rising Seas? No, an Avalanche of Unreality

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on climate change in mid-May that will go down as one of the most farcical performances by government officials since the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the hearing was to examine how technology could be deployed for climate change adaptation. Just a few weeks before, a study commissioned by the Pentagon had warned that rising sea levels were threatening critical U.S. military assets in the Pacific Ocean. So there were serious matters of national security at stake.

But the hearing soon devolved into absurdist theater as one Republican congressman after another trotted out their pet objections to climate science.

 

A cause of rising sea levels? The White Cliffs of Dover. Photo by jpellgen licensed under CC by-NC-ND 2.0.

As reported by E&E News, Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, was testifying when things began to unravel. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) charged that established climate science had been “beaten into our heads” and he questioned whether climate change was caused by human activities.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, then entered into the fray, displaying a slide of two charts that he said made clear that the rate of sea-level rise has not been commensurate with the sharp rise in the consumption of fossil fuels. Duffy noted that Smith’s chart drew on data from only one tide gauge station, near San Francisco, and patiently explained that sea levels rise at different rates around the world.

“It’s accurate, but it doesn’t represent what’s happening globally; it represents what’s happening in San Francisco,” Duffy said.

At this point, having drifted far from the topic of how to use technology to address climate change, the hearing reached a near epic moment of ridiculousness: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), pointing to the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover, insisted that falling rocks were a major factor in the rise of sea levels. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers was contributing to sea-level rise.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

Clearly, the bottom was not just moving up; it had taken over. Having spent most of two hours trying valiantly to correct one misstatement after another, Duffy retired from the field. “No, Mo Brooks, it’s not the rocks falling into the ocean that are raising the sea level,” one could imagine Duffy thinking to himself, “it’s the avalanche of American minds disconnecting themselves from reality that’s causing it.”

The Art of Creative Problem Solving

There are few problems more intractable and complicated than climate destabilization. The interaction between the myriad parts of the climate regime, the various feedback loops and the uncertainties that make it so difficult to predict what lies ahead, can seem overwhelming.

But, fortunately, there has been a tremendous unleashing of creative energy aimed at tackling this existential threat. It is this creativity — the seemingly unlimited capacity of humans to take on the most complex challenges — that is the source of our greatest hope.

One of the toughest areas to address lies at the intersection of environmental stewardship and social equity, especially at a time when the degree of inequality in American society has reached levels not seen since the early twentieth century. It was a special honor, in this context, to hear about a new NYSERDA initiative at last month’s TCCPI meeting to develop affordable, net-zero modular homes targeted to provide low-income families with a way to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

An example of an affordable net zero modular home. Photo courtesy of VEIC.

Working with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), NYSERDA will be spending $230 million over the next three years as it rolls out this new campaign. VEIC is a thirty-year-old nonprofit based in Burlington that is the first of the public-service ESCOs in the U.S. It has, in particular, focused on ways to provide low and moderate income families with ways to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and, in the process, provide significant cost savings for these families.

Currently, 8 million individuals live in manufactured homes in the U.S. These homes typically consume twice the energy of site-built homes. Following Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed hundreds of mobile homes in Vermont and New York in August 2011, the call went out to replace mobile homes with modular construction.

The new net zero modular homes are equipped with solar PV systems and super efficient technology, including LED lighting, EnergyStar appliances, cold climate heat pump, heat pump water heater, and energy recovery ventilator that also monitors indoor air quality. The result is a manufactured home that not only saves the homeowner money but also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and provides higher quality, healthier homes.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of how human ingenuity and technical prowess can combine to address in one package two of our most serious problems, climate change and inequality. With the right priorities and focus, there is little doubt that more such solutions are on their way.

Weather v. Climate Redux

Here we go again. One of the favorite gambits of climate skeptics and deniers is to roll out the old chestnut that if the weather is cold outside your door, then global warming (emphasis here on “global”) must be fake news. You would think that anyone playing golf in sunny Florida and commenting on the cold snap in the Northeast would grasp the basic idea. But apparently not. Hence the latest dispatch from the tweeter-in-chief calling for some “good old global warming.”

Putting the concept in terms that even President Trump might understand, Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, observed, “There is still hunger in the world, even if you just had a Big Mac.”

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Graphic courtesy of University of Maine – Climate Change Institute.

The map above makes the same point, using science rather than a metaphorical cheeseburger. It shows all of the places in the world that were experiencing above-average winter temperatures during the current cold spell in the eastern U.S. “Nobody ever said winter would go away under global warming, but winter has become much milder and the record cold days are being far outnumbered by record warm days and heat extremes,” Matthew England, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, pointed out. “Climate change is not overturned by a few unusually cold days in the U.S.”

In the face of such willful ignorance on the part of the American president, it would be easy to pull up close to the fireplace, take a slug or two of Wild Turkey, and write off the future. But, in fact, Trump’s extreme views on climate change are a reason for hope, not despair. His obstinate refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change has mobilized citizens and their leaders across the globe.

The U.S. withdrawal from Paris, in particular, has energized American corporations, higher education institutions, faith-based organizations, mayors, and governors to take action. Projects for carbon-cutting and green energy at the local and state levels are making every effort to close the gap created by the White House’s insistence on treating the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a hoax. The most prominent coalition emerging since the withdrawal expresses this determination with eloquent conciseness: “We Are Still In.”

Developing countries, too, are recognizing the foolhardiness of President Trump’s stance and are ramping up the production of renewable energy at unprecedented rates. As a recent New York Times article noted recently, “China has indeed moved dramatically on climate change,” seeking to meet its own pledge under the Paris accord to cap carbon emissions by 2030, to launch the world’s largest carbon market, and rapidly expand the use of electric cars.

So, as the clock winds down on 2017, we should turn to 2018 with a renewed commitment to engage in unrelenting local action and national resistance, understanding that Trump is the weather and we are the climate. Best wishes for the new year.

A Season of Havoc

It has been a season of havoc in the western hemisphere, with biblical winds, water, and fire sweeping across the land. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have pounded the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, driving millions of people from their homes and making entire islands uninhabitable. A firestorm has ripped through wine country in northern California, killing dozens of people and flipping cars over with the force of winds generated by the heat. Forests have erupted in flames in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, blocking out the sun for hundreds of miles.

“We are in the unsustainable future,” disaster-preparedness expert Kathleen Tierney recently observed. “Now that the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have heated up so much, there are going to be more of these big storms and there are going to be more fires.”

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The post-apocalyptic scene in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture licensed under the Creative Commons.

That’s our new reality. But in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration is hard at work, seeking to erase all evidence that the federal government acknowledges this new reality. The now inconveniently named Environmental Protection Agency has removed resources to address climate change from its web site. Last week it  canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on in Rhode Island. Perhaps most outrageous, it just released a draft of its four-year strategic plan that contains no mention of climate change or greenhouse gas emissions. The list of such inexcusable actions grows longer with every passing day as other federal agencies carry out similar purges.

And the world wonders if we have lost our minds. In late September I attended an international conference on “The U.S. and the World We Inhabit” in Milan, where I had been invited to deliver a keynote on climate activism in the U.S. The main theme of my talk was simple: don’t give up on us; there are lots of Americans pushing back against the effort to dismiss climate change as “fake news.” At one point, I remarked somewhat sarcastically that I doubted Italy had had to mount a “March for Science.” Amidst the laughter a hand went up. “Oh, but we did have a march,” the professor said. “It was for America.”

With this remark came a shared but unspoken understanding: the U.S. has relinquished leadership of the biggest and most important challenge of our time, the transition to a low-carbon economy. How did we get to this point? How is it that the U.S., which for decades led the world in scientific and technological achievement, has become an object of pity rather than a source of inspiration? It was both an embarrassing and infuriating moment, and it left me with plenty to ponder on the flight back home.

Houston, Harvey, and the Future

The ongoing tragedy in Houston is a dramatic reminder of what will happen if we continue to defer action on global warming. Climate change did not “cause” Hurricane Harvey, but it almost certainly intensified the impact of Harvey. The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake provides us with a glimpse of the future awaiting us if we don’t take extraordinary steps to decarbonize our economy now. As Eric Holthaus notes, “This isn’t just a Houston problem.”

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Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Besides giving us a window on what lies ahead if we don’t act to mitigate climate change, Harvey has underscored the extent to which climate change is a social justice issue. The disproportionate impact on Houston residents of this unprecedented storm couldn’t be starker. The economic divisions of Houston are easy to delineate : neighborhoods to the west and south of Houston are significantly better off than those to the east and north.

True to form, the worst damage has been in the poorer neighborhoods, especially those on the east side closest to the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later,” says Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard.

Here’s the big picture: currently we are putting 41 billion tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. Scientists have determined that we can only emit 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide before we run the risk of setting off catastrophic climate destabilization. That means we only have 15 years left before we use up our carbon budget. Obviously we cannot wait until year fourteen and then shoot for zero in that last year.

In fact, an article published this past June in Nature argues that if we do not reach peak emissions by 2020 and begin to drop from there the chances of the of not overspending the carbon budget are minimal. That’s three years from now.

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris climate negotiations, along with several scientists, policy makers, and corporate executives, lay out in this article a six-point plan for ensuring that we reach peak emissions in three years. Everything outlined in the plan is achievable but it will require a level of political will and support from civil society that simply does not exist at present.

Among the targets that the plan sets:

  • At least 30% of world’s electricity supply generated by renewables (currently 23%)
  • No new coal-fired power plants built after 2020 and existing plants on the road to retirement
  • Upgrade at least 3% of building stock to zero- or near-zero emissions structures each year
  • 15% of new car sales are electrical vehicles (currently 1%)
  • The financial sector is mobilizing at least $1 trillion a year for climate action

Ambitious goals, yes, but Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the cost we will pay if we don’t start to move immediately to put carbon emissions on a downward path. “The status quo is not an option,” says David Roberts. “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is for us to determine the ratio.”

No Moratorium for Climate Change

As the 8th annual Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) report makes clear, there is much to celebrate in our community. Viewed collectively, the report documents an impressive contribution to the fight against climate change. Perhaps most important it demonstrates how collaboration and a sense of common purpose can lead to real progress.

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The Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden. Photo courtesy of the Town of Dryden.

There is one area, however, of significant concern: the growing opposition in the Finger Lakes region to commercial-scale wind and solar. The debate over solar farms in Dryden, in particular, reflects the sharp divide between those who want to hold on to a nostalgic view of rural life and those who want to address the future challenges that we face as the climate continues to destabilize at a rate that even the most pessimistic computer models have underestimated. “Hillside after hillside, farm land after farm land, field after field they are going to replace our beautiful, beautiful landscape with nothing but industrial solar panels,” declared one opponent in the Dryden controversy, while other opponents decried the disrespect shown to those buried in a nearby cemetery.

The same battle lines have formed in other communities such as Newfield, Enfield, and the Town of Seneca, all of which have recently passed moratoriums on large-scale wind and solar projects in an attempt “to preserve the rural character” of their communities. The irony is that there seems to be little acknowledgement of how climate change is threatening the very foundation of rural life in the Finger Lakes, the biosphere that makes our region so unique.

If we refuse to act with an eye on the future and move rapidly to a clean energy economy, we are faced with the prospect of a new ecosystem making its way north. Projections indicate that, given the current pace of global warming, in as few as 30 to 40 years the climate of upstate New York is likely to resemble that of Georgia. Clearly, such a shift will result in a very different countryside than what our grandparents experienced. Already the average temperature in New York during the winter has climbed 4.4 °F since the 1970s, heavy downpours have increased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and spring begins a week earlier  than it did a few decades ago.

The message is clear: the biggest risk of all is to do nothing. The ecosystem of the Finger Lakes is already experiencing significant stress and only by dramatically reducing our carbon footprint as quickly as possible can we have any chance to avoid exchanging it for a very different ecosystem. Without the development of large-scale wind and solar, there is little to no possibility of avoiding this fate. In short, there is a lot more at stake than spoiling the view.

Go Faster and Go Further

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration this Saturday, it’s clear that the new president has determined to maintain the fossil fuel regime. In response, hundreds of marches will be held around the country (including in Ithaca), with the main event in Washington, DC. As Bill McKibben notes, “since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing.”

The rollback of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, which had their own limitations, means that the U.S. will send up to 900 more megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent report, that will increase the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent at a time when we need to be making dramatic cuts in these emissions.

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Trump’s advisors are divided about whether the U.S. should abandon the Paris Agreement, but even the strongest advocates for not doing so want to renegotiate the terms of the accord. In any event, it certainly appears as if we’re handing over leadership on this critical issue to China and Europe. In terms that Trump might understand, such a failure of leadership will do permanent damage to our nation’s brand. But much more than a marketing blunder is at stake;  the fate of human civilization rests on not going down this road.

The one bright light is that the transition to a clean energy economy seems to have reached a tipping point that will carry it forward regardless of any policy shifts. In particular, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, It’s too late to bring back coal or the associated mining jobs, not just because natural gas has become too cheap for coal to be competitive. The costs of wind and solar have dropped so significantly in the last several years that they, too, have become cheaper than goal. This new reality is apparent in the recent decision of the Kentucky Coal Museum to install solar on its roof as a cost-saving measure. Yes, that’s right: the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar.

The numbers tell an even more impressive story. As the chart above indicates, renewable energy capacity grew 9.3 percent in 2015, the fifth year in a row that the rate has been above 8 percent. In the first quarter of 2016, renewables made up 99 percent of the new electricity production capacity in the U.S., and from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 they increased from 14 percent of electricity to 17 percent. In contrast, coal dropped during that same period from 36 percent to 29 percent.

The global growth in solar has been especially explosive. For the first time since 2013, solar outpaced wind in 2016. The primary driver has been the astonishing reduction in the cost of utility-scale solar: it fell 62 percent from 2009 to 2015 and is projected to drop another 57 percent by 2025.

At the same time, renewables have become a key source of new employment around the world. Renewable energy jobs rose by 5 percent in 2015 to 8.1 million and there were an additional 1.3 million jobs in large-scale hydropower. In another sign of the historic transition taking place, the American solar industry now employs more workers than coal: 209,000 compared to about 150,000 jobs.

So we’re moving in the right direction; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that we need to move a lot faster and go a lot further. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we need to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix by 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Overall, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent per year on average to meet the Paris target.

Accomplishing this task is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And, clearly, we can’t count on the federal government to make it happen; it’s up to us. All the more reason we need to take to the streets on Saturday and make our voices heard.