Oct. 12 weekly climate update from the MacArthur Foundation:
Climate change finally received adequate press coverage this week, as scientific findings and political realities collided head-on.
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definitely grabbed the world’s attention with release of its report warning that global warming could reach 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial times—the gateway to irreversible climate disruption—as soon as 2030, unless humanity makes seemingly impossible cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
“The world we know today is not the world we will see in 50 years” if global warming exceeds 1.5°C, said Debora Ley, a renewable energy and climate change specialist who was one of the report’s lead authors. The telltale impacts of climate change we are experiencing now” will be considerably worse,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation. Over the past 20 years, 91 percent of all major disasters globally “were caused by floods, storms, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events,” according to a report released Wednesday by the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
The IPCC report presents “a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community, and I hope it mobilizes people and dents the mood of complacency,” said Debra Roberts, who co-chairs of the IPCC’s Working Group II, which assesses the climate vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems.
“There is nothing opaque about this new data,” said Christiana Figueres, who was the U.N. climate chief when the Paris Agreement was approved by nearly all of the world’s governments in 2015. “The illustrations of mounting impacts, the fast-approaching and irreversible tipping points are visceral versions of a future that no policy maker could wish to usher in or be responsible for.”
What must be done to prevent climate catastrophe has “no documented historic precedent,” the 728-page IPCC report says. Basically, the world must rapidly and dramatically wean itself from burning fossil fuels for power and transportation, from eating red meat and from other mainstays of the current global economy. “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,” said Myles Allen, an Oxford University climate scientist who also helped author the report. “If action is not taken, it will take the planet into an unprecedented climate future,” said Hans-Otto Portner, a professor at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine and Polar Research and co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group II.
The report “is quite a shock and quite concerning,” said climate scientist Bill Hare, founder and CEO of Climate Analytics and an author of previous IPCC reports. “We were not aware of this just a few years ago.” But some climate scientists found the report too optimistic. “We are closer to the 1.5C and 2.0C thresholds than they indicate, and our available carbon budget for avoiding those critical thresholds is considerably smaller than they imply,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, told E&E News. “In other words, they paint an overly rosy scenario by ignoring some relevant literature.”
As if nature wished to validate the IPCC’s warnings, a fast-moving Hurricane Michael quickly formed in the Gulf Mexico, escalating in intensity until just before it slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday as a Category 4 menace with top sustained winds of 155 miles an hour—the strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States in October. Yet even with the one-two punch of the report being followed by another record hurricane literally shredding another region of the U.S., the IPCC’s “shocking” findings did little to change the political landscape.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday that his country was not going to be “pulled around by the nose” by “international associations” like the IPCC. Australia will stay in the Paris Agreement, he said, but it will not give more money to the cause and does not feel obligated to deliver on its pledge for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Jair Bolsonaro, who now seems all but assured to become Brazil’s next president at the end of this month, has sworn to take his country out of the Paris Agreement. This is how Climate Home News on Monday summarized the campaign promises of the man being called “the Brazilian Trump”: “No more Paris Agreement. No more ministry of environment. A paved highway cutting through the Amazon. … Indigenous territories opened to mining. Relaxed environmental law enforcement and licensing. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF (World Wildlife Fund), banned from the country.”
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed skepticism about the IPCC report. “It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it—you know, which group drew it,” he told reporters on Tuesday, adding that he has seen other reports that claim the climate situation is “fabulous.” (“Who drew it?” The Washington Post responded on Wednesday. “Ninety-one leading scientists from 40 countries who together examined more than 6,000 scientific studies.”)
Officially, the State Department said that U.S. “acceptance of this report… does not imply endorsement…” and reiterated that “the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement at the earliest opportunity… .”
“That’s the U.N. That’s the group that was formed to sell this in the first place. They come from that prejudiced perspective,” Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican known for his adamant rejection of human-caused climate change, said of the report. Other Republicans in Congress talked around the dire findings, joked about them or avoided mentioning them at all. In a show of contempt, Senator John Brasso, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced a bill Tuesday to end the $7,500 tax incentive for Americans to buy electric vehicles.
“The leadership in Washington is really moving against the whole agenda,” said Johan Rockström, the director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
The world must invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 and cut the use of coal-fired power to almost nothing by 2050 to save itself from catastrophic damage from climate change, according to the IPCC. “This report makes it clear: There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal,” said Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist and also an author of the report.
But investment in clean energy was down 2 percent in the first nine months of 2018 compared with last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in an analysis published Tuesday. That followed a warning Monday from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the current growth in renewables is not robust enough to lower global carbon emissions, which were back on the rise last year. “When I look at the first nine months of data, I expect in 2018 carbon emissions will increase once again. This is definitely worrying news for our climate goals,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, told the Guardian. “We need to see a steep decline in emissions. We are not seeing even flat emissions.”
In essence, the IPCC concluded that the world has 12 years to steer clear of entering an age of rampant fire, famine, killing heat, flooding rains and inundation by rising seas. “Scientists just laid out paths to solve climate change. We aren’t on track to do any of them,” read a TIME headline on Monday—an assertion backed up by data from Climate Action Tracker, the coalition of three research organizations tracking climate action. “The apathy and inaction of our political leaders is dooming our children and grandchildren to a nightmarish world of climate chaos,” David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program, said in a statement.
The question that begs to be asked is when hope for climate change mitigation should give way to simply bracing for impact. “The main difference between possibility and impossibility is just political will,” said Chris Weber, lead scientist for climate and energy at WWF.
Democrats’ bid to take back the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on November 6 looks exponentially more important—to the entire world—than it did last week.
In addition to the potential fallout from climate change laid out in detail by the IPCC, the senior author of research published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned of “catastrophic” mental health implications if Earth’s aggregate temperature soars to 2°C and beyond.
“Our paper—when coupled with evidence that climate change may impact everyday human moods to severe outcomes like suicide—provides further evidence that exposure to heat, on average, worsens mental health outcomes,” said Nick Obradovich, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. Mental duress could come “via the impacts of heat on sleep, on daily mood, on physical activity rates, on heat-related illness, on cognitive performance or any complex combination of the above. Unfortunately, these processes are so complex that we can’t easily identify precisely which mechanism is driving our results.”
A paper published Wednesday in Nature backed up the IPCC’s contention that the world’s eating habits have to change to maintain a habitable planet. Reducing consumption of red meat would solve an array of sustainability challenges brought by feeding the additional 2 billion or so humans expected to join the current 7.7 billion by 2050, the authors concluded. “We recommend having less than one serving of red meat per [week],” said senior author Marco Springmann, a scientist at the U.K’s Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.
In what looked like a move to dovetail with the IPCC report, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named Yale economist William Nordhaus—known for advocating a carbon tax to curb climate change—as one of two recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. “There are billions of individuals, millions of firms, thousands of governments, hundreds of nations, and for them to take action, they’re going to have to have incentives. We can raise the prices of goods and services that are carbon intensive and lower the ones that are less carbon intensive,” Nordhaus said at a press conference. “The policies are lagging very, very far—miles, miles, miles—behind the science and what needs to be done,” he also said after learning of his Nobel. “It’s hard to be optimistic. And we’re actually going backward in the United States with the disastrous policies of the Trump administration.”
The World Bank announced Monday that it would not back construction of a $2-billion coal-fired power plant in Kosovo. “We are required by our bylaws to go with the lowest cost option, and renewables have now come below the cost of coal. So, without question, we are not going to [support the plant],” said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. The bank said in 2013 that it would eschew direct investment in coal projects, and the Kosovo project reportedly was the last exception to that rule.
Also on Monday, the International Finance Corporation (IFC)—the private sector investment arm of the World Bank—indicated that it too would begin turning away from coal. “I want to proactively seek financial intermediaries that would like our help in greening their portfolios and reducing their exposure to coal projects, which are not only bad for the environment but could also become stranded assets in the future,” IFC CEO Philippe Le Houérou wrote in Devex.
In a surprise ruling on Tuesday, The Hague Court of Appeal told the government of the Netherlands that it must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, upholding a groundbreaking 2015 legal win for the Dutch environmental group Urgenda. “Considering the great dangers that are likely to occur, more ambitious measures have to be taken in the short term to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect the life and family life of citizens in the Netherlands,” the court said. “Up until now, the state has done too little to prevent dangerous climate change and is not doing enough to make up lost ground,” Presiding Judge Marie-Anne Tan-de Sonnaville said.
Also on Tuesday, news broke that ExxonMobil intends to give $1 million over two years to support the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan—a carbon tax promoted by the Republican trio of former Treasury Secretary James Baker, former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Senator Trent Lott, in partnership with former Democratic Senator John Breaux. “A company getting behind its product being taxed is a very rare thing,” said former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, now a Harvard professor of economics. “This reflects a new and important awareness that we have to do big things about climate.” However, as Climate Liability News observed, the Baker-Shultz plan also calls for an “end to federal and state tort liability for emitters,” which would take ExxonMobil off the legal hook for its role in accelerating climate change and obfuscating the associated dangers.
President Trump was on the midterm stump again this week, visiting Iowa to smooth the ruffled feathers of corn and soybean farmers angsting over his failure to increase ethanol blending in gasoline and his trade war with China and other countries that buy American farm products.
At a rally in Council Bluffs on Tuesday, he skirted talk of trade tariffs but announced that he had ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set up year-round blending of gasoline with 15 percent ethanol. “I made that promise to you during the campaign. I made that promise to you during the primary,” Trump said. “Promises made; promises kept.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil-and-gas industry’s main lobbying group, called the move “ill-advised,” while 20 U.S. senators from both parties representing oil states deemed it “misguided.” “I can’t overstate how disappointed we are with this decision by the president,” said Chet Thompson, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. “We have been working with the administration for a long time trying to find a path forward that can work for everybody. The president certainly has indicated he wanted to find a solution that works for both sides of this issue. But, unfortunately, what he has now instructed EPA to do doesn’t come close to that.”
Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, the EPA named five new members to its seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which guides the agency on “research related to air quality, sources of air pollution and the strategies to attain and maintain air quality standards.” While Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called them “highly qualified,” environmental experts noted that most come from state agencies that have fought EPA air standards. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said the EPA was “stacking the boards” to rubber-stamp Trump doctrine.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the EPA may do away with the 20-member Particulate Matter Review Panel that advises the agency on what concentrations of tiny airborne pollutants are safe for human respiratory systems. “To me, this is part of a pattern,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re seeing [the] EPA trying to cut science out of the process.”
In keeping with that apparent mandate, the Senate voted Thursday to confirm climate change skeptic Jeffrey Bossert Clark to lead the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. In private practice, the attorney defended BP after its 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in challenging the EPA’s mandate to regulate climate-warming emissions. “When did America risk coming to be ruled by foreign scientists and apparatchiks at the United Nations?” Clark wrote in a 2010 attack on the endangerment finding that underpins the EPA climate mandate.
Despite Donald Trump’s many promises to save the coal industry, Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal Company filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court on Tuesday, making it the second to do so during his presidency. The company said it would continue operations and not lay off employees as it restructures more than $1.4 million in debt because of waning demand for coal.
By September 2021, another 16.3 gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generating capacity is earmarked for retirement, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report released on Tuesday. At the same time, natural gas, wind and solar generation make up most of the 252 gigawatts in new capacity slated to come online by September 2021. The report sparked more calls from the coal industry for FERC to bail out uneconomic coal-fired power plants, which is opposed by most of the country’s power industry.
According to the Washington Examiner, the Trump administration has cooled on the idea of a bailout because of opposition from such staunch Trump supporters as the Heritage Foundation. “The [White House] has pumped the breaks on it as conservative groups have come to strongly oppose it,” said Devin Hartman, assistant to the president at the Electricity Consumers Resource Council.
“China leads the world in decarbonization,” boasted a headline in the government-owned China Daily on Tuesday. The accompanying story went on to create a positive spin for the results of an index of G20 countries’ low-carbon transitions released last Thursday by London-based consultancy PwC (formerly called PricewaterhouseCoopers).
Indeed, “China, the world’s largest emitter, is outperforming its G20 peers and has demonstrated the highest decarbonization in 2017 of 5.2 percent,” PwC said in a press release. “China has nearly halved the carbon intensity of its economy in ten years.” But there was a major caveat: “…[D]espite these impressive statistics, there was still a 1.4-percent increase in emissions in China in 2017, and its carbon intensity remains above the… average” among the major emerging economies of the so-called E7—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Turkey.
In commentary about the IPCC report, Reuters’ coal expert Clyde Russell wrote: “China is the world’s largest producer, consumer and importer of coal, and any genuine attempt to remove coal from the world’s energy mix by 2050 will require massive commitment from Beijing. While the Chinese government has a policy of limiting the use of coal and of boosting the use of renewables and natural gas, it’s well within the realms of wishful thinking to imagine the world’s second-largest economy is on track to abandon the use of coal by 2050.”
China is single-handedly creating an international bull market for coal, according to an analysis published Wednesday by Bloomberg News. “This is the sweet spot for the coal miners,” said Ben Davis, an analyst at Liberum Capital Markets. “Chinese coal demand is through the roof, and that’s because domestically they’re not producing enough. China is importing more coal than it ever has done before.”
At the same time, new research from Carbon Tracker estimates that 40 percent of China’s coal-fired power plants are operating in the red. “Two-fifths of China’s coal power stations are loss-making, and owners could save nearly $390 billion by closing plants in line with the Paris Climate Agreement,” the London-based financial think tank said Thursday in a press release. “If China fails to phase out coal power, the world will fail to contain dangerous climate change. Our analysis proves it is in China’s own financial interests to retire coal in a manner consistent with the Paris Agreement,” said Matt Gray, head of power and utilities at Carbon Tracker.
The IPCC report warns that India will be among the countries hardest hit by the heat, drought and flooding from both sky and sea as Earth’s temperature rises.
“Considering the urgency to rapidly decarbonize, the world needs a Plan B, as the Plan A—the Paris Agreement—will push the world towards catastrophic warming. India must take the lead in forming a global coalition for a 1.5°C world to save poor and vulnerable populations across the world, including its own,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said in a press release about the IPCC report. “Even at a little over 1.0°C warming, India is being battered by the worst climate extremes. It is clear that the situation at 1.5°C is going to worsen. The new report from [the] IPCC has served us a final warning that we must get our act together—now and quickly,” said Sunita Narain, CSE’s director general.
In order to fulfill its part in keep global warming below 1.5°C, India’s power sector would need to cut two-thirds of its coal use by 2030 and all but phase out coal by 2050, Greenpeace India said in a statement on Monday. The country’s oil consumption also would have to decrease dramatically. “India has one of the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam, campaign manager for climate and energy at Greenpeace India. “The country’s current push towards electrification of transport has given us a unique opportunity to transform both our electricity and transport systems. … But for that to happen effectively, India needs to re-look at its investments [in] coal and oil.”
In a move that may or may not have been related to that statement, India’s Enforcement Directorate, charged with enforcing economic laws, searched the offices of Greenpeace India on Thursday and froze some of its bank accounts over suspicions that the nonprofit brought foreign funds into the country illegally. “Every rupee that goes into Greenpeace India’s environmental work is a donation made by ecologically conscious people in the country,” Greenpeace India said in a statement on Thursday. “We strongly object to attempts of defaming Greenpeace India through false claims and accusations. This seems to be part of a larger design to muzzle democratic dissent in the country.”
In other related news, coal giants Coal India and NLC India agreed to pool $1.6 billion for joint develop of 3 gigawatts (GW) of new solar power capacity over the next 15 months. “Curiously,” noted PV-Tech, “the agreement also includes the construction of 2 GW of [coal] power assets.”
With just over three weeks until the U.S. midterm elections, the new IPCC findings coupled with the devastation brought by Hurricane Michael could still raise the profile of climate change in some campaigns, especially the U.S. Senate and governor’s races in Florida.
The next landmark event after the midterms and Brazil’s presidential runoff on October 28, will be the annual U.N. climate summit. The European Union’s biggest coal producer, Poland, is gearing up to host the global conference from December 2-14, even as it works to slow the bloc’s transition away from coal. Despite its pending resignation from the Paris Agreement, the United States is expected to take an active role in negotiating the final rule book for implementing the Paris Agreement.
Australia, which is staying in the U.N. accord but not honoring its pledges for emissions cuts and financial assistance to help developing countries cut their emissions, may inflame already simmering tensions between rich and poor countries. Energy Minister Angus Taylor this week pointed a finger at developing countries for not doing enough to reduce their emissions, even though developed countries have failed to produce promised funds to assist. “The critical thing here is other countries. Whether it’s China or India, the developing world is where there’s a great deal of growth in emissions,” Taylor said.
Add the dire IPCC findings to that mix and diplomatic fireworks are all but guaranteed in Katowice, Poland, come December.