Climate concerns spur paradigm shifts, even if they’re little and late


Paradigms continue to shift in response to climate change, even if they aren’t doing so fast enough or at sufficient scale to prevent climatic upheaval. Still, a global transformation appears to be inexorably inching forward, as evidenced by this week’s news.

This post is a compendium of weekly national and international climate news from the MacArthur Foundation. You can sign up for these weekly emails here

The European Union and Japan on Tuesday announced what was billed as the world’s largest free trade deal. “The agreement covers 600 million people and almost a third of the global economy,” CNN reported. It also won the distinction of being the first such deal in which the parties pledged to comply with the Paris Agreement.

While some oil giants are diversifying into powering electric vehicles, Saudi Aramco has 300 engineers in Michigan scrambling to create a hyper-efficient internal combustion engine to safeguard its market share, The Wall Street Journalreported on Monday. “We are trying to get technology into production, and we want it very fast,” said David Cleary, head of the company’s Detroit Research Center.

Netherlands-based Vitol Group, the world’s largest independent oil trader, announced it was creating a new fund to invest more than $230 million in wind farms, joining the growing number of movers and shakers in the oil industry embracing renewables. “We see [the] challenge facing electricity markets and we are also evolving our business model to adapt to this future,” Simon Hale, head of investments at Vitol, told Bloomberg News. In addition, the company is investing more than $300 million in renewable energy storage and distributed power projects.

Wood Mackenzie, one of the world’s leading global energy consultancies, is now forecasting that the global demand for oil will peak in as few as 18 years because of a “tectonic” shift toward electric vehicles. “A lot of our clients recognize that peak demand is real,” Ed Rawle, head of the firm’s crude oil research, told the Financial Times. “It’s just a question of when it arrives.”

Investments in electricity infrastructure outpaced investments in the oil-and-gas sector for a second year in a row during 2017, according to the latest review of global energy spending from the International Energy Agency (IEA) released on Tuesday. However, spending on renewables was down a bit from the year before, with investments in energy efficiency up only slightly. China’s pullback on its runaway clean energy build-out was undoubtedly a factor, but the sluggish pace was “worrying” for IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “This could threaten the expansion of clean energy needed to meet energy security, climate and clean air goals,” he said. “While we would need this investment to go up rapidly, it is disappointing to find that it might be falling this year.” On Wednesday, analysts at Goldman Sachs predicted global solar installations would fall by 24 percent in 2018, largely because of China’s lull in expansion.

Meanwhile, London-based global investment manager Schroders—with more than $520 billion under management—marked a year since launching its Climate Progress Dashboard to help investors makes sense of the world’s progress toward transitioning to a low-carbon economy and meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial times. Based on 12 indicators from political ambition to electric vehicles to coal production, the tool shows the world remains on track toward catastrophic warming. “When we launched the Climate Progress Dashboard a year ago, it pointed to a 4.1°C temperature rise,” said Andrew Howard, who leads the company’s sustainability research. “Since then, it has fallen slightly to 4°C.”

Climate context

This week brought a profusion of new evidence of Earth’s relentless warming.

A Canadian glaciologist who studied 1,700 glaciers in Canada’s Arctic between 2000 and 2016 found all of them were losing mass, with 1,353 shrinking significantly. “What I saw… was 100 percent of glaciers retreating,” said Adrienne White of the University of Ottawa’s Laboratory for Cryospheric Research. “They all retreated. Nothing is growing.”

Even under the best scenario aspired to under the Paris Agreement, seas will keep rising to levels that will overwhelm the world’s coastlines, according to a study published Monday in Nature Climate Change. That reality needs to be factored into climate action plans, the researchers warned. “We need to ask if there is a target for sea level rise much like the 2-degree threshold that was established for global warming,” said lead author Peter Clark, an Oregon State University (OSU) climate scientist. “The big question is whether we can stabilize the system and find new energy sources. If not, we’re on the way to a slow-motion catastrophe,” said coauthor Alan Mix, an OSU oceanographer.

One of the possible casualties of rising sea levels within as few as 15 years are the thousands of miles of Internet cables along the coasts of the United States. That’s the conclusion of a new analysis by scientists at the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They’re talking about “the wires and the hardware that make the Internet run,” senior author Ramakrishnan Durairajan, a computer scientist at the University of Oregon, told National Public Radio. New York, Miami and Seattle are among the areas at highest risk of disruption. “…[M]uch of the infrastructure that’s been deployed is right next to the coast, so it doesn’t take much more than a few inches or a foot of sea level rise for it to be underwater,” said coauthor Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin. “It was all deployed 20ish years ago when no one was thinking about the fact that sea levels might come up.”

In the here and now, the first six months of 2018 marked the third hottest January through June on record, according to data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University. Mashable pointed out the more sobering fact that the first six months of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 were the hottest four every recorded. “When a record is broken once, it’s a fluke. When it happens again, it’s a coincidence. When it happens three times, it’s a trend. But when it happens every single year, it’s a movement,” saidSarah Green, an environmental chemist at Michigan Technological University. “In a stable climate, one place is warmer than normal while another is colder. …[T]hat is no longer the case; it’s hotter pretty much everywhere.”

Climbing temperatures are increasing the frequency and size of wildfires in the American West but also reversing years of effort to reduce air pollution in the region. A study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that while fine airborne particulates decreased 42 percent since 2016 nationally, they increased in wildfire-prone California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. “We want to be careful not to put it all on climate change, but climate change is clearly a contributing factor and particularly in the size of these fires,” saidcoauthor Daniel Jaffe, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington. “A fire that used to become a small fire has now become a massive conflagration.”

The weather is getting so hot in parts of the United States that more than 130 public health, consumer advocacy and environmental groups on Tuesday asked the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to mandate that employers do more to protect outside workers from the increasingly deadly threat. “This is a public health issue. This is a justice issue. The people who feed us, who feed America, deserve strong protections from the effects of climate change. We’re calling on OSHA not to delay anymore,” said Jeannie Economos, environmental health project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. “…[H]eat killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” says a report on the issue released Tuesday by Public Citizen, a Washington, DC-based consumer advocacy think tank that was among the OSHA petitioners.

Keeping temperatures out of the danger zone will be impossible unless the world’s meat and dairy industries do more to combat climate change, according to a reportpublished Wednesday by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers. “Together, the world’s top five meat and dairy corporations are now responsible for more annual greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP,” GRAIN said. “To avert climate catastrophe, we must reduce production and consumption of meat and dairy in overproducing and overconsuming countries and in affluent populations globally, while supporting a transition to agroecology.”

Finally, a study that appeared Thursday in Science lays out additional corroboration of humanity’s “fingerprint” on climate change in the form of seasonal temperature swings. “The piling on of evidence is worrying me,” lead author Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told Bloomberg News. “This is the kind of stuff you don’t want to be right about.”

Surprises

In what may have surprised hopeful climate activists, a federal judge on Thursday dismissed New York City’s lawsuit that sought to hold oil giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell liable for damage from climate change caused by the production and consumption of their oil and gas.

“The immense and complicated problem of global warming requires a comprehensive solution that weighs the global benefits of fossil fuel use with the gravity of the impending harms,” wrote Judge John Keenan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. His opinion echoed the June ruling of a federal judge in California who threw out a similar case brought by San Francisco and Oakland. “Judge Keenan’s decision reaffirms our view that climate change is a complex societal challenge that requires sound governmental policy and is not an issue for the courts,” Shell said in a statement. “We intend to appeal this decision and to keep fighting for New Yorkers who will bear the brunt of climate change,” Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement. Oakland and San Francisco also vowed to appeal but have not yet done so, and Baltimore announced Friday that it would sue 26 oil and gas companies for their role in accelerating climate change.

The U.S. Department of Energy has not yet estimated the cost of its proposed bailout for failing coal and nuclear power plants, so the Trump administration may have been surprised by the trade groups American Petroleum Institute (API), Advanced Energy Economy and American Wind Energy Association banding together to commission an estimate. The lifeline could cost as much as $35 billion a year, according to an analysis by the respected Brattle Group research firm released on Thursday. “…[B]ailouts of coal and nuclear plants around the country could raise costs on American consumers and fundamentally hurt the administration’s goal of American energy dominance throughout the world,” said Todd Snitchler, API’s director of market development, referencing President Trump’s energy strategy.

The Trump administration has been surprisingly aggressive in trying to put the kibosh on the Oregon lawsuit by 21 young people, now aged 11 to 22, that claims the president and eight federal agencies have violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday asked the Supreme Court to stay the case until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on the government’s second request for a dismissal. The high court’s intervention became unnecessary on Friday when the 9th Circuit unanimously denied the government’s request.

Going at the matter from a different angle, DOJ attorney Marissa Piropato argued on Wednesday before Judge Ann Aiken in the U.S. District Court for Oregon that the case should not go to trial in her court, as scheduled in October, because the youth are basically asking the court “to run, or at least supervise, several federal agencies,” which “is something the court cannot do.” Julia Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued the opposite. “No branch of government has more responsibility than the court, especially in a case with children who have no political power…,” she said. “This generation has not faced a constitutional question greater than this one.”

United States

While the world fixated on Donald Trump’s confusions about Russian President Vladimir Putin, there was also important climate-related news out of Washington, DC.

The U.S. Department of Treasury announced Monday that some nonprofit organizations will no longer have to disclose to the Internal Revenue Service the names of donors who give $5,000 or more, which would include contributions from blockers of climate action such as the Koch brothers and the Mercer family. “It’s a boon to anyone who wants to spend large amounts of money on politics without any accountability,” said Robert Maguire, the political nonprofit investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics.

In related news, an analysis published Thursday in Climatic Change found that lobbyists spent more than $2 billion between 2000 and 2016 trying to influence the U.S. Congress on matters related to climate change. “Environmental organizations and the renewable energy sector lobbying expenditures were dwarfed by a ratio of 10:1 by the spending of the sectors engaged in the supply and use of fossil fuels,” the paper says. “The vast majority of climate lobbying expenditure came from sectors that would be highly impacted by climate legislation,” said author Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University. “The spending of environmental groups and the renewable energy sector was eclipsed by the spending of the electrical utilities, fossil fuel and transportation sectors.”

On the heels of a letter sent last Friday by 14 state attorneys general asking Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler to reverse his predecessor Scott Pruitt’s last-minute decision to quash a rule limiting the production of super-polluting diesel trucks, three environmental groups filed an emergency motion on Tuesday to block the move. “The EPA’s decision to halt the enforcement of this rule endangers the health and safety of American families and our climate,” said Joanne Spalding, lead climate counsel for the Sierra Club, which filed the motion with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit halted the EPA decision “to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the emergency motion,” stipulating that the stay “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion.”

The EPA held a public hearing Tuesday on Pruitt’s proposed rule banning the use of what he called “secret science” to inform the agency’s rulemaking—a proposal that had already garnered more than 200,000 public comments since it was announced in April. The American Lung Association, Moms Clean Air Force and the Union of Concerned Scientists where among those who spoke against the rule this week. “The proposed rule perpetuates the incorrect notion that the science the EPA relies on is somehow hidden. It is not,” Representative Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, testified. “The EPA would be forced to ignore valuable information discovered during their research because it contains confidential information. This would have chilling consequences for the EPA and every person who benefits from clean air and clean water.” The public comment period will remain open until August 16.

The U.S. Department of Interior on Thursday proposedchanges to the Endangered Species Act that could allow economic considerations to influence whether wildlife is protected, downplay the impacts of climate change on species’ survival and make it easier to build roads and pipelines in the habitat of vulnerable species. This followed a lawsuit filed Monday by three environmental groups seeking to block Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s plan to offer oil-and-gas leases for more than 73 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, POLITICO reported Wednesday that Interior’s inspector general is investigating whether Zinke’s personal business dealings with the chairman of Halliburton—one of the world’s largest oil field service companies—poses a conflict of interest in his decisions about fossil fuel activities on public lands and waters under his jurisdiction.

As promised, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a resolution rejecting in advance any form of taxation on carbon emissions as “detrimental” to the country’s economy. InsideClimate Newsnoted that the vote tally marked “a slight erosion in the GOP wall of opposition to climate action” since an identical resolution was passed in 2016. In spite of Thursday’s vote, Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican and co-founder of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, plans to introduce a carbon tax plan on Monday.

China

China and the European Union came together Monday in Beijing to recommit to the Paris Agreement and call on the rest of the world to do the same as a matter of urgency, citing Donald Trump’s bête noire “multilateralism” as the key to overcoming “the most critical global problems of our time.”

“The E.U. and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever,” the summit’s joint statement says.” They confirm their commitments under the historic 2015 Paris Agreement and step up their cooperation to enhance its implementation. … The increasing impacts of climate change require a decisive response, in view of striving for the common good of all humankind.” The two also emphasized that “tackling climate change and reforming our energy systems are significant drivers of job creation, investment opportunities and economic growth” and that “collaboration on climate change and clean energy” would “become a main pillar” of their “bilateral partnership… .”

While recognizing China as a global leader in climate policy, a report released Thursday by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy concluded that “some Chinese policies run counter to climate change goals,” citing China’s backing of coal projects at home and abroad. Basically, the report outlines all the ways in which China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, might or might not transition its economy away from fossil fuels fast enough for it and the world to make good on the Paris Agreement. “There is no solution to climate change that doesn’t involve China,” the report rightly points out.

China’s power demand neared full capacity this week when summer temperatures soared alongside robust industrial production. “As China entered [the] summer season, electricity demand for air conditioning and refrigeration has increased, leading to a rapid surge in daily power generation,” Yan Pengcheng, a spokesman for the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said on Tuesday, warning of possible power shortages “in some areas during peak periods.” The situation may have been exacerbated by factories anticipating future work slowdowns to reduce winter smog, as happened last winter, Wood Mackenzie analyst Frank Yu told Bloomberg News.

Rising summer temperatures increase ground-level ozone, which has spiked in China this summer, raising additional concerns about injury to residents’ lungs. Concentrations hit a record high in June, rising 11 percent over 2017 and 21 percent over 2016, Greenpeace reported on Wednesday, using government data. “Likely reasons for surging ozone levels include stubbornly high nitrogen dioxide emissions from heavy industry and transport, and increasing [carbon] emissions from a wide range of industries from petroleum refining, plastics manufacturing and other chemical industries, construction, and from cars and trucks,” Greenpeace said.

India

This week brought increased worries for India’s solar power developers but good news for the country’s coal industry.

The government announced that it is considering a hefty, two-year “safeguard” duty for solar panels imported from China and Malaysia to counter “serious injury” to the country’s domestic manufacturers. The Directorate General of Trade Remedies (DGTR) on Monday recommended for a 25-percent duty that would drop to 20 percent in the first half of the second year and to 15 percent after that. “Imposition of [a] safeguard duty in this case would be in [the] public interest because it will prevent complete erosion of [the] manufacturing base of [the] solar industry in the country,” the DGTR said.

India, which imports more than 90 percent of its solar equipment and took in 31 percent of China’s exports in 2017, considered a 70-percent safeguard duty earlier this year. That proposal was shot down by concerns that it would hinder Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goals for expanding the country’s solar capacity. But the math on the new proposal only works if domestic manufacturers “scale up and bring down the cost differential,” said Anish De, who heads infrastructure and government services at KPMG in India. As things stand, India’s solar panel makers could provide only 15 percent of developers’ needs, Bloomberg News reported. Inderpreet Wadhwa, chairman of New Delhi-based solar provider Azure Power, warned that the proposed duties could push up the price of solar energy, making it less competitive with emissions-heavy coal power.

India’s demand for coal to generate electricity rose 7.5 percent during the fiscal year ending on March 31, Coal Minister Piyush Goyal told lawmakers on Wednesday. Imports of thermal coal were up 15 percent in the first quarter of the new fiscal year despite the government’s goal of ending coal imports, which prompted state-run Coal India to up production, Goyal said.

At the same time, India’s Adani conglomerate saidWednesday that the fate of its proposed, controversy-racked Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia—meant to export coal to India—rests on securing a so-far elusive loan to build a railway connecting the mine to a port near the Great Barrier Reef. While lenders and government officials have shied away from financing the project, expert observer Tim Buckley of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, warned against assuming the project will die. Adani’s founder and and chairman “has never been wealthier than he is today. Never underestimate a billionaire,” Buckley said, dismissing the company’s caveat as no more than “pressure on [Australia’s] federal government to provide yet another massive subsidy.”

Looking forward

The “This is Zero Hour” march is scheduled to take place Saturday in Washington, DC, with “sister marches” in other cities across the country and around the world, to rally young people around the idea that they are the last hope for saving the planet. “This is the last hour, the last generation that can do something about climate change,” says the sister march information packet. “We cannot afford to wait any longer for adults to protect our right to a clean and safe environment or the natural resources we need to not just survive, but thrive.”

Monday is the day U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, plans to unveil his proposal for a carbon tax to a body that has just soundly rejected any such suggestion. “Agree a carbon tax ALONE would hurt the economy, but when paired w/ regulation changes, infrastructure investment & the repeal of regressive taxes—like I’ll be proposing Monday—it can protect our environment & protect economic growth,” Curbelo tweeted on Thursday. “I look forward to engaging with my colleagues on this topic next week…,” he said after the thumbs-down vote. It could be a very short discussion but an interesting one nonetheless.

As always, watch for more lawsuits and court rulings.