An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act

As the City of Ithaca considers possible next steps on climate action, it would do well to look downstate for inspiration. On April 18 the New York City Council passed a sweeping “Climate Mobilization Act” to fight climate change, a package of seven bills that supporters said would help build a “Green New Deal for New York City.” The legislation passed by a 45-2 vote.

Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Andreas Komodromos licensed under CC BY-2.0.
The centerpiece of the package requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut climate emissions 40% by 2030 and more than 80% by 2050, which officials said is “the most ambitious energy efficiency legislation in the country.” In addition, the legislation:
  • Requires green roofs, solar panels, and/or small wind turbines on certain buildings
  • Establishes a renewable energy and energy efficiency loan program
  • Streamlines the application and siting process for wind turbine installation across the city
  • Orders the city to carry out a study on the feasibility of closing its 24 oil- and gas-fired power plants and replacing them with energy storage and renewable power

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

As the New York Times observed in its coverage of the story, “Buildings are among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions because they use lots of energy for heating, cooling and lighting, and they tend to be inefficient, leaking heat in the winter and cool air in the summer through old windows or inadequate insulation.” An inventory published in 2017 of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City found that buildings accounted for two-thirds of the city’s overall emissions.

It is for this very reason that TCCPI moved in 2016 to establish the Ithaca 2030 District as its new flagship program, joining a network of 22 cities in North America seeking to improve the energy and water performance of their downtown commercial buildings. Currently, the network has 493 million square feet committed. New York City is in the process of also establishing a 2030 District in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, and it should soon be up and running.

The Ithaca Green Building Policy marks a significant step towards encouraging new development projects to become more environmentally sensitive. As the policy enters the process of codification, however, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of commercial construction in the city is made up of already existing buildings. How does Ithaca intend to address this issue? The Climate Mobilization Act just passed by the New York City Council points the way.

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.”

Time for Some Good News?

There are plenty of discouraging climate-related developments out there — Hurricane Matthew, wildfires in the West, the ongoing drought in central New York. You don’t even have to look beyond our country’s borders to find enough bad news to make you want to pull the covers over your head. And, globally speaking, we’re still on track for 2016 to be the warmest year since records began in 1880.

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Hurricane Matthew

But believe it or not there’s actually been quite a bit of good news so far in October. As Vox reported the other day, here’s what this month has brought so far:

1) Canada is putting a nationwide carbon tax in place. On October 4, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government the  tax starting in 2018.

2) That same day the Paris climate agreement went into effect. Enough countries ratified the the deal so it’s now officially “in force.” Governments will have to regularly report and review their progress on emissions to the UN.

3) A new global deal on aviation emissions was signed two days later. More than 190 countries  agreed to offset much of the global growth in aviation emissions starting in 2020. This deal has plenty of flaws but it’s the first time the International Civil Aviation Organization has addressed the climate impact of flying, one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2.

4) Finally, on October 15, 197 countries  agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a very potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Vox described this as “probably the most important climate policy taken to date.” It’s estimated that the HFC treaty alone could prevent between 0.2°C and 0.44°C of warming by the end of the century. When ratified, this agreement will be legally binding and enforceable through trade sanctions.

Closer to home, we’ve also seen some positive developments recently:

1) Cornell just issued an important report outlining its options for meeting its target of carbon neutrality by 2035.  The release of the report by the Senior Leader Climate Action Group, will begin the next phase of campus and community engagement around this very ambitious goal.

2) New York’s  2016 Energy Conservation Construction Code went into effect on October 3rd for residential and commercial buildings. The new code calls for improvements in the design and construction of energy-efficient building envelopes and the installation of energy-efficient mechanical, lighting and power systems through requirements emphasizing performance.

3) The Tompkins County Planning Department announced that it has completed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories. The report shows that the Tompkins County Community reduced its emissions by 21% between 2008 and 2014 and Tompkins County Government reduced its emissions by 53% during this same period. The not-so-good news, however, is that when fugitive methane emissions outside of the County are taken into account total emissions due to expanded natural gas use have probably risen significantly.

4) Last but not least, in August New York established the Clean Energy Standard, a mandate that requires 50 percent of New York’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030. The Clean Energy Standard is critical to reducing the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Of course, even when the impact of all these developments is added up, we still don’t come close to keeping global warming below 2°C, the generally agreed upon ceiling for preventing runaway climate change. But they demonstrate that collective action is possible and by joining together we can build on these achievements to make further progress. As Bill McKibben points out, “”The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual…Job one is to organize and jobs two and three.”

Drilling in the Arctic vs. the Clean Power Plan

Cognitive dissonance seems to be running rampant in politics these days, achieving near epidemic levels. Chris Christie accusing Donald Trump of not having the “temperament” to be president of the U.S? Governor Bridgegate? Germany attacking Greece for seeking debt forgiveness — remember World War II, anyone? The Republican party calling for the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment? Huh? Wasn’t that the heart of the Republican plan for Reconstruction in 1868?

The Obama administration topped all of these, however, when it  gave final approval to Shell on August 17 to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean just days after the president announced tough new environmental regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants.

SEATTLE KAYAK OIL PROTESTThe “Paddle in Seattle” protest against Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

It was a head-snapping WTF moment for anyone paying the slightest attention. The strongest action ever taken in the country’s history to combat climate change, and then before you know it, the White House puts out the word that it’s okay for Shell to “drill, baby, drill.”

What to make of this? What happened to the President’s seeming determination to leave the White House with a legacy of climate change progress?

The Clean Power Plan, which will limit the amount of carbon dioxide pollution power plants can generate, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these facilities 32 percent by 2030. If the plan withstands the expected legal challenges, it will set in motion dramatic policy changes that will close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, halt construction of new coal plants, and generate an unprecedented boom in the production of renewable energy.

On the other hand, the approval of Shell’s plan breaths new life into the company’s 25-year bid to open up an area of the Arctic for oil exploration. Shell will be allowed to drill 8,000 feet below the ocean floor, 70 miles off the Alaskan coast.

Facing sharp questioning from the press, a senior official at the State Department was forced to acknowledge that there was an “obvious tension” between the U.S. commitment to combat climate change and its approval of Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic. But, in the end, the official offered no explanation beyond the usual “we must be doing something right if both sides are mad at us.”

Not to be outdone by Christie, Germany, the Republican party, or Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray, offering her own special brand of cognitive dissonance. Although Clinton has refused to take a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, that did not stop her from criticizing the decision to greenlight the Shell project. “The Arctic is a unique treasure,” she tweeted in response to news of the White House approval. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

As welcome as Clinton’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic is, it can only leave one wondering about TransCanada’s plan to build a pipeline to transport toxic tar sands through North America’s largest source of underground fresh water, the href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Ogallala Acquifer. Is that worth the risk to this unique treasure?

Stay tuned. And don’t forget to take something to ease that pounding in your head. 2015 is shaping up to be the year cognitive dissonance becomes a dominant feature of the modern landscape. Oy vey.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

daryl-hannah-protests-transcanadas-keystone-xl-pipeline

As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

Tompkins County at Forefront of New Clean Energy, Climate Plans

Recent events have underscored the slow and uneven pace of progress at the national level regarding clean energy and climate change policies.  In this light, it’s also clear that in the immediate future, most real work on these fronts will occur at the local, state, and regional levels.

As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008 compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was one of the original signatories of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016.

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Cornell University and Ithaca College in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), whose long-term goal is to achieve climate neutrality. Tompkins Cortland Community College became a signatory the following year, and the three institutions have since invested significant effort towards fulfilling this promise.  Cornell’s climate action plan earned it a leadership award last month from Second Nature, which launched the ACUPCC and oversees its operations.

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), beginning in 2008, has built on this impressive foundation to forge a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With generous support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together Cornell, IC, and TC3, Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, the County Legislature and Planning Department and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development, and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition.

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EGGE) element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008, provides the guiding framework for TCCPI. The EEGE element calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual goal of 2 percent of 2008 level over the next four decades to achieve that reduction. County planners recently secured the support of the County Legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.

Besides facilitating the implementation of a common strategy, target, and timetable for achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, TCCPI’s networks are exploring potential financing strategies for purchasing and investing, and new tools that will allow us to monitor our progress through effective data collection and analysis. In the process, by creating a culture of collaboration, we hope to become a model for other communities throughout the nation seeking to adopt efficient, clean energy and effective climate protection.

Note: This piece appeared originally in the Ithaca Journal, December 6, 2010.