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.”


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.


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.”


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.”

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.


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.

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.


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.”