Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

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.

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 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.

A Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.