After Trump attempts to bury climate report, media put it front and center


As CNN pointed out, there is the “Friday news dump” and then there is the “Black Friday news dump.” The former aims to sweep news under the rug, while the latter aims to bury it under the food hangovers, blockbuster sales and football-watching marathons that preoccupy Americans the day after Thanksgiving.

The White House choose the latter to release U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, which was mandated by Congress and compiled by 13 federal agencies, with input from some 300 scientists. The report’s topline message: Human-caused climate change is a present and verified threat in the United States that is rapidly worsening, endangering the health of the American economy and the American people.

“They dropped the report on Black Friday, and you know it’s the press who calls releasing anything on a Friday afternoon ‘taking out the trash’,” said Andrew Light, a former member of the Obama administration’s climate team and now director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. “This was burning it and burying it in the backyard… .”

When asked about the new climate assessment on Monday, President Donald Trump told reporters, “I don’t believe it,” although he admitted to reading only “some” of the startling findings in the 1,656-page report.

“Observations from around the world show the widespread effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations on Earth’s climate,” the report says. “High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing.” It also warns that “sea level rise might reshape the U.S. population distribution” and that “the potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial and equity issues that have not yet been addressed.”

“There is a bizarre contrast between this report, which is being released by this administration, and this administration’s own policies,” said Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center. At the same time, some expert observers noted, the report could help opponents of the Trump administration’s continuing efforts to stop federal climate action. “This report will weaken the Trump administration’s legal case for undoing climate change regulations and it strengthens the hands of those who go to court to fight them,” said Michael Oppenheimer, director of Princeton’s Center for Science Technology and Environmental Policy.

“Ironically, ‘Trump trying to bury climate report’ is such a compelling media narrative that it might lead to GREATER coverage of the National Climate Assessment,” tweetedMichael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

In fact, the Columbia Journalism Review tracked widespread news coverage of the climate assessment the day after Black Friday. CNN, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and other major mainstream news outlets featured stories about the findings throughout the week. The New York Times ran a story today with the headline, “Trump’s ‘energy dominance’ doctrine is undermined by climate change,” recounting how “at every turn, …rising global temperatures threaten to undermine the president’s vision of an energy-dominant America.”

Immediately following the report’s release, a White House spokeswoman said its conclusions were “largely based on the most extreme scenario,” to which Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, responded via Twitter: “I wrote the climate scenarios chapter myself so I can confirm it considers all scenarios… . What WH says is demonstrably false.”

As the week unfolded, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler and other administration officials called the climate report’s findings into question for modeling “worst case scenarios.”

“Assertions by high officials of the Trump administration that these are ‘worst case’ reports are nothing more than a flimsy attempt to discredit the careful and comprehensive work of some of the best climate scientists in the country, inside and outside of government,” John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, told POLITICO.

In a press briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders discounted the climate assessment as “not data driven” because it was “based on modeling” of possible future outcomes. “The president’s certainly leading on what matters most in this process, and that’s on having clean air, clean water,” she said, glossing over the administration’s efforts to dismantle the seminal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that have been in place since the 1970s.

While broadcasting Sanders’ remarks, CNN superimposedfact-check graphics that underscored the report was compiled by 13 federal agencies and 300 scientists, the authors were not paid for their contributions and there was an open and transparent review of the content before publication.

Coverage by the mainstream media was relentless, but whether it won any hearts and minds remains to be seen. “I’m afraid that the report will be dismissed… because [the 2100 time frame] seems really far away,” said Gary Yohe, a professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University and a senior member of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Who cares? How do we refocus back to something people will understand? People are looking out their windows and seeing climate change. People look at their TVs and see California burning. These aren’t projections or estimates, they are observable facts.”

On Wednesday, the USA Today editorial board called for “climate activists, businesses harmed by global warming, and everyone else who cares about the fate of the earth and future generations to take a page from the NRA playbook.” What’s needed, the board said, is “a climate super-lobby… to convince a still-doubtful segment of the public, mobilize voters, strong-arm recalcitrant lawmakers and, perhaps most important, raise the money necessary to make all of this happen.”

Climate context

The U.S. climate assessment’s findings were backed up by the “Provisional Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018 from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

All but one of the past 18 years were the planet’s hottest on record globally, the WMO said Thursday, and global temperatures are headed for a rise of 3 to 5°C over preindustrial times this century—leaving the Paris Agreement’s 2°C goal as a quaint reminder of the world’s naive 2015 aspirations for preventing devastating climatic disruption. Emissions of the main greenhouse gases driving climate change—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—are all at record levels, the U.N. agency found.

“The last time the earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer and sea level was 10 to 20 meters [about 33 to 66 feet] higher than now,” said the WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas. “The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

A study published last week in Nature Climate Change “found traceable evidence for 467 pathways by which human health, water, food, economy, infrastructure and security have been recently impacted by climate hazards such as warming, heat waves, precipitation, drought, floods, fires, storms, sea-level rise and changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry,” the authors wrote. “By 2100, the world’s population will be exposed concurrently to the equivalent of the largest magnitude in one of these hazards if emissions are aggressively reduced, or three if they are not, with some tropical coastal areas facing up to six simultaneous hazards.” Senior author Camilo Mora, an associate professor of geography and environment at the University of Hawaii, likened the latter scenario to “a terror movie that is real.”

“…[T]he world’s original level of ambition [in the Paris Agreement] needs to be roughly tripled to stay within 2°C warming, and increased around five-fold for the [safer] 1.5°C scenario,” but “global greenhouse gas emissions show no signs of peaking,” according to key messages from the Emissions Gap Report 2018 released Tuesday by U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). “The gap between where we are and where we need to be is much bigger than it was last year,” said co-author Philip Drost, a UNEP program officer. “We have new evidence that countries are not doing enough.”

“The climate apocalypse is now, and it’s happening to you,” said a Wired headline summing up the latest version of The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change report, which was published Wednesday. “Increased mortality in extreme heat waves is happening now, [but] there is abundant evidence that communities are not prepared for the ongoing increases in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves,” said co-author Kristie Ebi, a professor of public health sciences at the University of Washington. One of the headline findings states that climate is already the “sole contributing factor for thousands of people deciding to migrate and is a powerful contributing factor for many more migration decisions worldwide.”

Surprises

While the world knew Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro was not a fan of the Paris Agreement, it still came as a surprise when his nominee for foreign minister, citing financial constraints, on Wednesday withdrew the country’s offer to host the global climate talks in 2019. “I participated in the decision,” Bolsonaro said from the nation’s capital, where he was planning his January 1 assumption of the presidency. “I told my future foreign minister to avoid hosting this event here in Brazil,” he said, referring to Ernesto Araújo, who has characterized climate change as a “Marxist plot” to hurt western economies.

In a contrasting surprise, French President Emmanuel Macron stood firm in the face of thousands of protesters with broad public support who took to the streets of France to object to his tax on gasoline aimed at helping the country pay for its transition away from fossil fuels. “What I’ve taken from these last few days is that we shouldn’t change course because it is the right one and necessary,” Macron said. Upping the ante, his government announced Tuesday the formation of a 13-member High Council on Climate Change to ensure that France’s national policies stay in sync with the Paris Agreement.

In the United States, two Republican and three Democratic lawmakers in Congress on Tuesday introduced a surprising bipartisan bill to tax fossil fuel companies on their carbon emissions. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act would start by charging $15 per ton of emissions, followed by $10 annual increases, with all proceeds going back to American taxpayers. The bill’s co-sponsors estimate the tax would reduce carbon emissions from the fossil fuel sector by 40 percent in 10 years and 91 percent by 2050. The proposed law “is the product of rigorous negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, liberal groups and conservative groups, environmentalists and business interests,” said co-sponsor Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat. It resembles the Market Choice Act recently introduced by Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who lost his bid for reelection this month. In parallel efforts, at least seven states could put forward carbon taxes in 2019, InsideClimate News reported.

On the global front, the London-based financial think tank Carbon Tracker released “the first global analysis of the profitability of 6,685 coal plants worldwide,” with results that were likely an unwelcome surprise for the coal industry. The study found 42 percent of the world’s coal-fired power capacity is now unprofitable, and 72 percent could go into the red by 2040. “It costs more to run 35 percent of coal power plants than to build new renewable generation,” Carbon Tracker’s press release said. “By 2030, building new renewables will be cheaper than continuing to operate 96 percent of today’s existing and planned coal plants. China could save $389 billion by closing plants in line with the Paris Climate Agreement instead of pursuing business-as-usual plans; the E.U. could save $89 billion; the U.S. could save $78 billion; and Russia could save $20 billion.”

United States

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe in climate change, according to the latest Monmouth University poll released on Thursday. That marks a jump of 15 percentage points since 2015—the year Donald Trump declared his presidential run. And the poll was taken before the overwhelming news coverage of the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment.

In contrast, here is what Trump told The Washington Post in a rambling interview published Tuesday after he was asked why he had disavowed his administration’s own climate change report: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself—we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including—just many other places—the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say, ‘Where does this come from?’ And it takes many people to start off with.

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it—not nearly like it is. Do we want clean water? Absolutely. Do we want clean air to breathe? Absolutely.”

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin asked Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler on Wednesday to name three policies supported by the Trump administration to secure cleaner air and another three aimed at cleaner water. Wheeler named his decision to enforce Obama-era restrictions on tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty diesel trucks after a federal appeals court blocked the agency’s decision to rollback the restrictions. Then Wheeler was stuck. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give three off the top of my head,” he said.

The Trump administration also chose Black Friday to release an unprecedented U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report that found production of fossil fuels—oil, natural gas and coal—on federal public lands contributes about 24 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “The Trump Administration would rather not focus on climate change,” said David Hayes, who served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “The USGS report is particularly unwelcome, because it acknowledges, and quantifies, the direct role that the federal government has in accelerating climate change.” And the Trump team intends to significantly increase oil and gas production on federal lands.

In other climate-related news, General Motors on Monday announced plans to stop work at five North American factories, cutting its workforce by about 14,000, in order to focus on producing the bigger SUVs and trucks preferred by Americans and the electric cars mandated by China, the world’s biggest car market. “We are taking these actions now while the company and the economy are strong to stay in front of a fast-changing market,” Chairman and CEO Mary Barra told analysts during a conference call. An angry President Trump threatened Tuesday to retaliate by denying federal tax credits to buyers of GM’s electric vehicles, although it was unclear whether he could do so.

China

China and Russia continued to bond this week over fossil fuels. “The relations between the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China are on the rise,” President Vladimir Putin said at the opening of the inaugural Russian-Chinese Energy Forum in Beijing on Thursday. “An important part of these relations is energy cooperation, which has lately received significant development.”

Russia wants to sell oil and gas, and China wants to secure stable sources of oil and gas. “The Kremlin doesn’t fully trust China, but it knows that the national interests of both countries coincide in many areas and that China will be a predictable and pragmatic partner for years to come,” said Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “By contrast, Moscow sees U.S. leaders as unpredictable and untrustworthy.”

As state-owned Russian natural gas giant Gazprom builds a 1,860-mile pipeline linking its Siberian gas fields to China, Beijing continues to struggle toward the launch of its nationwide industrial carbon trading scheme, already nearly a year behind schedule. The necessary legal and technological systems are not yet in place, Li Gao, director general of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s climate change office, said on Monday. “As far as work arrangements are concerned, we must promote the construction of the carbon market in a phased and step-by-step manner,” Li said, noting the need to prevent “speculation” and “excessive financialization.” The accuracy of emissions data from some industrial sectors also continues to be a concern, Reutersreported.

Meanwhile, air pollution in China’s capital reached its highest level in 18 months on Monday, which may be a result of the government taking a less draconian approach to curbing industrial output during this winter’s heating season than last. “The air is so bad that everyone is literally wearing masks everywhere. I’m even wearing one in the office, as our newly installed ventilation system doesn’t seem strong enough to offset the pollution,” Cedric Wang, an investment manager in Beijing, told Bloomberg News.

But China is still all in on the Paris Agreement, Xie Zhenhua, the country’s top climate envoy, told reporters at a briefing on Monday. “I believe the promises we make will be 100-percent completed, and we will strive to do better,” he said. “Although we have encountered a lot of difficulties, a lot of problems, our targets and our resolution will not change.”

India

Between meetings on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States about, among other subjects, buying fossil fuels, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also met Friday with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to discussIndia’s “uniting role in addressing climate change globally” at next week’s global climate summit in Poland.

Back in New Delhi, India’s Supreme Court asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to prosecute government officials in and around the capital region who failed to act on hundreds of public reports of air pollution violations received via official social media and email. “Why do [you not] prosecute these officials? Let these people realize what they have done,” the bench of Justices Madan Lokur and Deepak Gupta asked Additional Solicitor General A.S. Nadkarni, who appeared before the court representing the CPCB.

Nadkarni reported that the CPCB received 749 air pollution complaints from November 1 to 22. Around 500 were addressed, but 249 were not. He told the court that prosecuting officials for negligence in enforcement could take years through the agency’s established processes. “By then, the erring officer might retire,” he said. “If we need to really help Delhi, I would request this court to direct the [relevant] agencies to comply with your direction,” he said. But the court declined to do so, saying that it could not “micromanage the issue.”

On average, people in India would live 4.3 years longer if the country met the global standards for lung-damaging airborne particulates, according to the new Air Quality Life Indexreleased last week by researchers at University of Chicago.

In other news likely to impact India’s exceptional air pollution, Gujarat-based energy giant Adani announced Thursday that it would proceed with a halved but self-financed version of its controversial coal mine proposed in the Australian state of Queensland after failing to secure financial backing for the the full project. “We have finance and we are ready to start,” Adani Mining CEO Lucas Dow said of the Carmichael mine. Banks and other lenders shied away from the project after years of protests and court challenges by environmental advocates concerned about the mine’s direct and indirect impacts on the nearby Great Barrier Reef and climate change in general. Most of smaller mine’s coal will be shipped to India for use in power plants, Dow said.

“The investment decision for the Carmichael project is surprising, given the gloomy outlook for global coal demand,” said Jason Aravanis, a senior industry analyst with the research firm IBISWorld. “Adani’s power stations in India alone generated losses in 2018 due to their reliance on expensive imported coal.”

Looking forward

As of this week, 184 countries had ratified the Paris Agreement—just 13 short of all parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which includes nearly the whole planet. Despite that milestone, the Paris Agreement is facing headwinds at the G20 leaders’ meeting underway today and Saturday in Argentina and expects further difficulties at the annual global summit set to open Sunday in Poland.

“The vast majority of G20 members attach great importance to combating climate change, so I believe the meeting will include such topics. We hope the G20 meeting of the world’s major economies will send a strong political signal, calling for more efforts to carry out the Paris climate agreement… ,” China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said Monday. “Of course, the climate issue will be discussed at the summit,” Russian G20 representative Svetlana Lukash said on Thursday. “This is probably one of the most pressing issues… .”

However, Climate Home News reported Monday that the United States was standing in the way of a G20 communiqué stating strong support for the Paris Agreement and that some countries wanted references to “varied” energy mixes and different “possible national pathways” toward the global decarbonization deemed essential by the IPCC to avert climate catastrophe. CNN reported today that U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton refused to accept any mention of the Paris Agreement or the link between human activities and climate change.

Given the trade tensions between the United States and China, the U.N. climate negotiations over the next two weeks in Katowice, Poland, will be dicey at best, said Poland’s former deputy energy minister Michał Kurtyka, who will preside over the talks. “Only by a miracle can we realize success,” he said last month. “Undoubtedly, the geopolitical situation in 2015 was much easier for discussing global agreements than the one we have in 2018,” he said this month.

The energy ministry of Poland, which is a member of the European Union, last week issued a statement defending the country’s heavy reliance on coal and advocating “evolutionary transformation of the power sector instead of drastic restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.” This week, the European Union announced its intention to become the world’s first climate-neutral economy by 2050. “We cannot safely live on a planet with a climate that is out of control,” Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president for energy, said in a press release.

Those are just a sampling of the potential flash points the world is likely to see between now and the close of the climate summit on December 14. Bloomberg Newssuggested the issues “to watch” will be finalization of the rule book for implementing the Paris Agreement, climate financing for developing countries, carbon markets, adaptation to climate change and the “U.S. delegation,” given Trump’s vow to leave the Paris Agreement and his intention to use the forum to promote fossil fuel consumption in the meantime.

Former U.S. vice president Al Gore will broadcast his annual 24 Hours of Reality event Monday and Tuesday from Los Angeles with a lineup of celebrities to “sound the alarm and call for global decarbonization.”

At the same time, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, will be joined by U.S. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who advocates a Green New Deal, for a live-streamed town hall on climate change Monday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium in Washington, DC. “We need millions of people all over this country to stand up and demand fundamental changes in our energy policy in order to protect our kids and our grandchildren and the planet,” Sanders told the HuffPost. “The good news is the American people are beginning to stand up and fight back.”