America’s midterms reveal a country on the fence about climate action


America’s midterms reveal a country on the fence about climate action
“With Democratic majority, climate change is back on U.S. House agenda,” an InsideClimate News headline declaredafter Tuesday’s midterm elections. “America voted. The climate lost,” The New Republic countered.

The full truth of the matter will unfold once Democrats retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, appears poised to take the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee from the chamber’s chief climate change denier, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas. “…I believe that at a minimum we need to pursue an agenda that will… address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it… ,” Johnson said in a post-election statement. (It is interesting to note that Texas voters choseanother climate change-denying Republican to fill the seat vacated as a result of Smith’s retirement.)

New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone is expected to take the reins of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which overseas the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “We will look to restore the environmental protections that have been gutted over the last two years,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

Nancy Pelosi, who intends to retake her former role as Speaker of the House, told The New York Times she favors resurrecting a select committee on climate change similar to the one financed by House Democrats from 2007 to early 2011, before it was disbanded by the incoming Republican majority.

At the same time, House Democrats appear far more intent on bringing President Donald Trump to account than spending their hard-won political capital on decarbonizing the U.S. economy. Furthermore, they must now shift their sights to the 2020 presidential race. And some are still smarting from the failed carbon cap-and-trade legislation of 2009 that preceded Democrats losing the House in 2010. “We all remember the cap-and-trade vote that helped prevent Democrats from keeping the majority,” Representative Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat, told the Washington Examiner. “If people think somehow magically we are able to change the world on January 1, they are not realistic,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. “I’d rather look for opportunities where we can push the envelope without ripping it up.”

Voters decimated the Republican contingent in the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which was comprised of 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats before the election. While all caucus Democrats up for re-election kept their seats, 13 Republican members lost theirs, including the co-founder and co-chair of the group, Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo, who championed a tax on carbon. “Is climate bipartisanship dead?” The New Republic asked on Wednesday. But some climate hawks dismissed the caucus as all show and no go. However, if the Republican Party has truly become “the Party of Trump,” as some observers asserted after Tuesday’s election, then getting GOP support for anything that even hints at being climate related before 2020 could become impossible.

On the Senate side, Florida’s contest was the only one in which climate change seemed likely to sway voters’ decisions, thanks to a series of devastating hurricanes and an unusually persistent red tide. The race pitted outgoing Republican Governor Rick Scott, a firm climate change denier, against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who tweeted in March, “Climate change is real, and we must take action to protect ourselves. Denial of this scientific reality is simply not an option, especially in Florida.” Although exit polling on Tuesday found 67 percent of Florida voters considered climate change a serious problem that the government should address, the final election tally for Scott and Nelson was so close to 50/50 that a recount will be necessary.

Election results for state offices revealed a similarly conflicted America.

Gavin Newsom will succeed Jerry Brown as California’s governor, taking up Brown’s mantle as chief elected counterweight to Trump on climate action. “Nothing enlivens me more than the prospects of being your next governor to use the bully pulpit of this state to hold [Trump] to account,” said the 51-year-old Newsom, who clearly has aspirations for higher office.

Jared Polis, a Democratic congressman who is now Colorado’s governor-elect, vowed his state would run solely on renewable power by 2040. “In the absence of national leadership from the White House, it is up to states like Colorado to chart our course for energy freedom,” Polis saidon his campaign website.

Although the results of at least two gubernatorial races remained in play  today because of close outcomes, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and Wisconsin all flipped from Republican to Democratic governors. After Tuesday, 14 states will have Democratic governors as well as Democrats leading both chambers of their legislatures. Depending on recounts, Democrats and Republicans could end up with an equal number of U.S. governors.

Like its Senate race, Florida’s gubernatorial contest is headed for a recount. Again, despite Floridians’ stated concerns about climate change, Trump-allied Republican candidate Ron DeSantis came out on top, although by less than 1 percent. “I’m not a global warming person,” he saidduring the campaign. “I don’t want that label on me.” But he also acknowledged sea level rise in South Florida, saying, “I think you’d be a fool not to consider that an issue that we need to address.” His Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, was unabashed in embracing human-caused climate change and the risk it poses to Florida. “Climate change is real, it is impacting Floridians directly, and we will not be silenced on the matter,” he said on Facebook. “When I’m governor, we will not just talk about climate change—we will put Floridians to work to make our state more energy independent and resilient and transform our state into the Solar Capital of the United States!”

Florida voters approved a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in state-controlled waters. But while Nevada voters passed a measure requiring the state to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, those in neighboring Arizona defeated the same mandate.

Voters in Portland, Oregon, enthusiastically approved a 1-percent tax on businesses with gross revenues over $1 billion nationally or $500,000 locally to fund clean energy projects. However, just to the north, Washington state voters for the second time rejected a tax on industrial carbon emissions that would have marked a first in the nation. Big Oil reportedly spent $31 million to defeat that measure and also invested heavily in successfully defeating a Colorado initiative that would have prohibited new fracking operations within 2,500 feet of homes and schools, placing an estimated 85 percent of non-federal land out of reach for oil and gas production.

“As we saw in Washington and Colorado, where we lost key climate initiatives, Big Oil and their allies will spend whatever it takes to protect their profit,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org. But Michael Green, executive director of the Boston think tank Climate XChange sees the defeat of Washington’s proposed carbon tax as a beginning rather than an end. “Washington state has opened the door for other states to continue moving carbon pricing legislation to the forefront,” he wrote Thursday in a blog. “States across the country are eyeing carbon pricing legislation for 2019, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, and possibly even Washington again.”

Climate context

Research by more than 100 scientists published Thursday in Global Change Biology found that climate change caused by humanity flooding Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide is altering the diversity of trees in the Amazon rain forest, known as “the lungs of the world” because of its ability to sequester CO2. “The ecosystem’s response is lagging behind the rate of climate change,” said lead author Adriane Esquivel Muelbert, a research fellow in ecology and global change at the University of Leeds. “The data showed us that the droughts that hit the Amazon basin in the last decades had serious consequences for the makeup of the forest, with higher mortality in tree species most vulnerable to droughts and not enough compensatory growth in species better equipped to survive drier conditions.”

Climate change has already made heat waves in the United Kingdom twice as long as they were 50 years ago, the first study of weather extremes by the U.K.’s Met Office discovered. Researchers also found that the coldest days of the year have warmed twice as fast as the warmest days and that total rainfall on “extremely wet days” increased 17 percent.

The Arctic is “no longer a safe haven” for nesting shorebirds because of climate change, putting them at risk of extinction, according to research published today in Nature. The ground-nesting birds used to find fewer egg-stealing predators like foxes and snakes in the region, but no longer. Nest invasions are three times more frequent than in the 1950s. “The Arctic, with recently elevated rates of nest predation, is no longer a safe harbor for breeding birds,” said senior author Vojtěch Kubelka, an ornithologist at the Charles University in Prague. “On the contrary, the Arctic now represents an extensive ecological trap for migrating shorebirds… .”

Surprises

Natural gas, wind and solar are now the least expensive sources of new power generation across much of the United States, according to an updated study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. “This shows why, even in coal country, nobody is building coal [plants],” said Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Energy Institute. “With gas and renewables in the system, there’s just no room for coal anywhere.”

For the first time ever, United Kingdom’s renewable energy capacity this year surpassed the country’s capacity to generate electricity from fossil fuels, research released Tuesday by Imperial College London found. The country’s renewable energy capacity reached 42 gigawatts to overshadow its 40.6 gigawatts from fossil fuels, according to the report in Drax Electric Insights Quarterly. “A third of Britain’s coal, gas and oil capacity has retired over the last five years, while the capacity of wind, solar, biomass, hydro and other renewables has tripled,” senior author Iain Staffell, a lecturer in sustainable energy systems, wrote in a summary of the findings.

Despite increasingly frequent ruinous extreme weather events in the U.S. in recent years, major credit ratings agencies have not downgraded even one American city because of risks from climate change, Bloomberg News reported. A spokesperson for Moody’s attributed that fact to cities’ resilience planning, which surprised some experts. “I don’t know how anyone can look at the last two years of catastrophic damage from severe weather in communities all across America and suggest with a straight face that we have our risks under control,” said Roy Wright, who headed risk management and flood insurance programs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency before becoming CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.

United States

U.S. carbon emissions from energy production will increase this year, thanks to extremes of hot and cold weather, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) confirmed in a reportreleased on Tuesday. “After declining by 0.8 percent in 2017, EIA forecasts that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will rise by 2.5 percent in 2018,” the agency said. “This increase largely reflects higher natural gas consumption in 2018 because of a colder winter and a warmer summer.”

Higher natural gas consumption is part of the reason the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on Thursday called for “temporary financial support to avoid the early closure of nuclear plants.” Given that “nuclear power is the single largest source of low-carbon electricity in the United States” and “more than one-third of U.S. nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close,” government policies are needed to ensure the zero-emissions renewables will fill the resulting void instead of natural gas and coal, the UCS argued in a new report. “Policymakers considering temporary financial support to avoid the early closure of nuclear plants should couple that support with strong clean energy policies, efforts to limit rate increases to consumers, and rigorous safety, security and performance requirements,” the science advocacy group said, in what sounded like an endorsement of the nuclear portion of the Trump administration’s proposed bailout for uneconomic nuclear and coal-fired power plants. “Nuclear power plants are being squeezed economically at a time when we need every source of low-carbon power we can get to replace retiring coal plants and prevent an over reliance on natural gas,” Steve Clemmer, the UCS’s director of energy research and analysis, said in a statement.

The Supreme Court refused to support the Trump administration’s request to stop a 2015 lawsuit filed by 21 young people in Oregon who claim the federal government jeopardized their future prospects by failing to mitigate climate change. The high court’s ruling came last Friday night, and the U.S. Department of Justice filed new motions Monday in a U.S. District Court in Oregon and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to halt the case. The Ninth Circuit granted a stay on Thursday while it considers the government’s arguments, even though it denied three previous requests to throw out the case. “The court told us to continue getting our work done for trial so that we are all ready when the Ninth Circuit rules,” said Julia Olson, one of the young plaintiffs’ lawyers from the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. “That’s exactly what we will do.”

In another legal tug-of-war involving the Trump administration, a federal judge in Montana on Thursday blocked construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until the U.S. State Department elaborates on how the oil sands conduit would impact climate change. “The Department… simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal [of President Barack Obama’s decision to nix the project] and ignored other potential impacts such as oil spills, Judge Brian Morris said in his decision. Trump called the judge’s ruling “a political decision” and “a disgrace,” suggesting that the government might appeal the ruling to the Ninth Circuit. “We’re slowly putting new judges in the Ninth Circuit,” Trump said. “Everything goes to the Ninth Circuit—everything.”

China

China’s President Xi Jinping sent a few choice words Trump’s way on Monday while addressing the first-ever China International Import Expo, which brought together more than 3,600 companies from across the world. “In a world of deepening globalization, practices of [the] law of the jungle and winner-takes-all only represent a dead end,” Xi said. He finished with, “Together, let us contribute to our common determined efforts to build a community with a shared future and usher in an even better tomorrow for mankind.”

Trump and Xi are scheduled to meet at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires on November 30 and December 1, which will be the eve of the global climate summit in Katowice, Poland, where the two countries look likely to be at odds.

The state-run Global Times on Thursday highlighted the city of Zhangjiakou in Hebei province north of Beijing acceleratingits efforts to become a “low-carbon Olympic zone” for hosting the “extraordinary” Winter Games in 2022 promised by President Xi. The plan includes development of wind power, planting new forests and replacing all petroleum-fueled forms of public transportation with low-emissions alternatives.

China is likely to install a total of 40 gigawatts of new solar power capacity in 2018, according to the National Energy Administration (NEA). The 34.5 gigawatts added in the first nine months of the year upped the country’s total solar capacity to nearly 165 gigawatts, of which 118 gigawatts were utility-scale and close to 47 gigawatts were in distributed arrays. The NEA reportedly is consideringincreasing its 2020 solar capacity goal to as high as 270 gigawatts.

Construction of a 986-mile, ultra-high voltage power transmission line to deliver clean energy from China’s isolated northwest to central China began Wednesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported. The $3.26-billion project is meant to link one of the country’s top renewable energy producing regions with some of its largest energy consumers. Substantial amounts of China’s clean power currently go unused due to lack of distribution capacity.

India

Smog in New Delhi was the big climate-related news out of India this week, after firecrackers from the autumn Diwali celebration and crop burning outside the city added to the normal mix of pollutants from coal-fired power production and more than 10 million registered motor vehicles.

Air quality readings of lung-damaging PM2.5 particulates reached 999 in some parts of New Delhi this week, which is, according to CNN, “the highest reading available before levels go ‘off-the-charts.'” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 12 or less to be a safe level.

“Such levels of pollution will shorten your life span,” Dr. Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, a cardiologist and president of the Heart Care Foundation of India, told Al Jazeera after the readings topped 600. “Everybody, including healthy people, [is] impacted now. All sudden deaths and acute heart attacks during this period in the city should be linked to pollution. … It is an extreme situation. Why is there no emergency action from authorities? They mobilized the army when there was a flood in Kerala. Today, there is a flood in Delhi, a flood of pollution. This is a natural disaster of equal gravity.”

“Why India isn’t fixing its toxic smog problem?” Reutersasked on Monday.

“The tragedy is that there is no political will at all either on the part of the federal government or the [local] government of Delhi and, as a result, we can see both blaming each other for the crisis that we are in,” said Yogendra Yadav, a social scientist. “Whatever little government action you get to see is because of the pressure that environmental activists and the Supreme Court get to exert.”

There will be a national election in May, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other candidates are more concerned with issues such as farm incomes, high fuel prices and job creation for the country’s burgeoning  population of young people. “A holistic approach in the current climate is difficult to envisage as political divisiveness means that politicians are not looking for enduring solutions,” said Pavan Varma, a former government diplomat who lives in Delhi.

Meanwhile, at the grassroots level, many of the people affected most by the gritty air spend all of their time struggling to make ends meet. “The daily grind… leaves no room to think about the haze and smog,” said Vimla Devi, a maid in Delhi’s suburbs.

On Wednesday, the Delhi government prohibited diesel trucks from entering the city for the remainder of the week, accept those bringing in food and other essentials.

Looking forward

President Trump headed to Paris today to join some 70 other heads of state for ceremonies hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron to commemorate the end of World War I.

Trump will not attend a “peace forum” organized by Macron’s government as part of the weekend’s official events. “The aim of the forum is to show that there are lots of forces in the international system—states, NGOs, foundations, intellectuals, companies—who believe we need a world of rules, an open world and a multilateral world,” Justin Vaisse, director of policy planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Agence France Presse. “This world needs to meet up and defend itself. It doesn’t matter if those who don’t believe in multilateralism aren’t there.”

Although Trump had been scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris, that tête-à-tête was rescheduled for the G20 Leaders’ Summit at the end of this month. Trump is expected to at least chat with Putin in Paris, however, which could prove awkward given that Poland’s state-owned natural gas utility signed a 24-year deal Thursday to buy liquefied natural gas from the United States that would otherwise have been supplied by Russia. “The price is much lower than the one we have in the contract with Gazprom,” Polskie Górnictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo CEO Piotr Wozniak said at a press conference to announce the deal with Texas-based Cheniere Energy. “I am happy that the cooperation [between Poland and the U.S.] is developing,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda, who noted with pride the American military presence in his country. “Looking at this, I can boldly say this is really a true transatlantic partnership.”

It will be interesting to watch whether this slap at Russia’s primary lower-carbon energy industry and the increasing bonhomie between right-leaning Duda and the Trump administration will affect December’s climate negotiations in Poland.