Republicans show sudden interest in climate threat they adamantly denied


The Weekly Climate Review for March 8, 2019:

After years of efforts to quash the mere mention of climate change and kill off any federal actions to curb it, Republicans in the U.S. Congress are suddenly talking about how to tackle the long-denied threat.

“[GOP] members are openly using the term ‘climate change,'” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of the melting state of Alaska told Bloomberg News. “You are not seeing this kind of dismissive attitude but [rather] more open conversations about some of the challenges, some of the technologies we can look to, some of the solutions.”

“It’s just not worth the fight anymore,” said Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who formerly cited the Bible to pooh-pooh climate change. “Let’s just see what we can do to address it and not hurt the economy.”

“There is a growing consensus on our side that man-made emissions are contributing to global warming, that the ‘Green [New] Deal is absurd, and we should be able to find a more appropriate solution to the problem,” Senator Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is now in lockstep with President Donald Trump on many issues, told Bloomberg.

“We are having conversations about how to address the problem, which is emissions,” said Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who, in 2015, likened Democrats to Chicken Little for their worries over climate change.

Republicans last Friday unveiled a new bicameral Roosevelt Conservation Caucus as a market-based counterweight to Democrat-led initiatives like the Green New Deal. The group’s chief madate is public lands but includes “energy independence” and assuring Americas leadership in renewable energy technologies.

In a Monday op-ed in USA TODAY, Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from the coal state of Wyoming, bashed the Green New Deal but acknowledged the need for climate solutions such as carbon capture. “We must continue to develop and deploy innovative and reliable clean energy solutions around the world,” he wrote. “In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats are working together on meaningful legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

“I think Republicans are in a very different space now,” Samuel Thernstrom, CEO of the Virginia-based nonprofit Energy Innovation Reform Project, told E&E News. “I think they are much more on board with the idea that there are harms to climate change and that they are attributable to man-made CO2 emissions. And the question is not whether we should do something about it but what we should do about it, and to me, that’s the most important evolution in the dialogue.”

“You have senior Republicans acknowledging this threat [and] recognizing that the government has a role in addressing it—directly challenging the president and the administration on some of their views,” said former GOP Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who introduced a carbon tax bill a few months before he was voted out of office last November. “This is an important political moment in our country… .”

Climate context

As the GOP warmed to climate change, sea ice in the Bering Sea reached a record low after an area the size of Montana went MIA this winter, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. “Every month of the year is tracking below average right now,” said Julienne Stroeve, a climatologist at University College London. “The decline in the Bering Sea is quite precipitous. We haven’t seen this before.”

In a more sobering revelation, research published Wednesday in Science Advances showed how loss of Arctic sea ice could have contributed to abrupt climate change 32,000 to 40,000 years ago. “Most extensive sea ice conditions occurred at the onsets and early parts of cold periods over Greenland and the most pronounced open-ocean conditions occurred at the onsets of the abrupt changes to warm periods over Greenland,” said lead author Henrik Sadatzki, a researcher at Norway’s Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.

The amount of Greenland’s precipitation that fell as rain rather than snow doubled during summers and tripled over winters from 1988 to 2012, contributing more than previously realized to melting of the ice sheet, concluded a studypublished Thursday in The Cryosphere. “This is starting to open a window to what’s driving the melting,” said co-author Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The liquid water is carrying the energy from the surface deep into the ice sheet.”

Meanwhile, heat waves in the world’s oceans have increased dramatically, compromising the stability of many marine ecosystems, according to research published Monday in Nature Climate Change. “You have heat wave-induced wildfires that take out huge areas of forest, but this is happening underwater as well,” said lead researcher Dan Smale, a marine ecologist at the U.K.’s Marine Biological Association. “You see the kelp and seagrasses dying in front of you. Within weeks or months, they are just gone along hundreds of kilometers of coastline.”

On terra firma, the United States just logged its wettest winter since record keeping began, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported Wednesday. From December through February, which NOAA counts as winter, the contiguous 48 states received 9.01 inches of precipitation—2.22 inches above normal. Despite a couple of headline-grabbing polar blasts, the season’s aggregate temperature came in at 1.2°F above average.

Surprises

An NPR investigation revealed Tuesday that wealthier white Americans fare better than poorer people and minorities when it comes to federal disaster relief. “Federal aid isn’t necessarily allocated to those who need it most; it’s allocated according to cost-benefit calculations meant to minimize taxpayer risk,” NPR reported. “The economic and racial inequities of disaster aid are especially stark when in comes to urban flooding. Federal buyouts have disproportionately gone to whiter communities. NPR analyzed records of about 40,000 property buyouts funded by FEMA and state and local governments and found that most of them were in neighborhoods that were more than 85 percent white and non-Hispanic. For context, the nation as a whole is 62 percent white/non-Hispanic, and disasters affect communities of all demographics.”

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that a surprising 56 percent of Americans consider the Democratic Party’s views on climate change within the mainstream, while only 29 percent consider Republican Party’s views as such.

In another surprising revelation, a study released Tuesday by the Transition Pathway Initiative at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute found that none of the world’s 20 largest publicly-listed airlines have plans in place to comply with the Paris Agreement, even though their growing industry now contributes 2 percent of global carbon emissions.

United States

The Trump administration’s regressive climate policies were in the spotlight this week.

A group of 58 former senior military and national security officials sent a letter Tuesday to President Trump voicing concerns about the proposed formation of a White House committee aimed at disputing mainstream climate science. “…[W]e are deeply concerned by reports that National Security Council officials are considering forming a committee to dispute and undermine military and intelligence judgments on the threat posed by climate change,” they wrote. “This includes second-guessing the scientific sources used to assess the threat, such as the rigorously peer-reviewed National Climate Assessment. … We urge you to trust and heed the analysis of your own national security agencies and the science agencies on which their assessments depend, including the 21 senior defense officials that have identified climate change as a security threat during your administration. A committee designed to undermine the many years of work they have done will weaken our ability to respond to real threats, putting American lives at risk.”

The same day, the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law released an analysis detailing “how the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks are designed to benefit the coal, automotive, oil and gas and landfill industries, which are collectively responsible for nearly 50 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions.” Team Trump’s rollbacks represent the equivalent of putting an additional 44 million cars per year on the road, the authors calculated.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its biennial “list of programs and operations that are ‘high risk’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or that need transformation.” The GAO specified that “government-wide action is needed to… reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change impacts,” noting regression in that area since 2017. “The federal government needs a cohesive strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks across the entire range of federal activities,” the watchdog agency concluded.

In contrast, the newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler, discounted the severity of the threat from climate change. “Is climate change the existential threat? I don’t see it as the existential threat, no,” he told the Fox Business Network. “We have a lot of environmental threats. We have a lot of environmental problems. But we’re working to address all of them.” He pointed to the world’s shortage of “potable drinking water” as “the largest environmental issue facing the planet today”—ignoring the increasing threat climate change poses to freshwater supplies.

White House officials have now threatened automakers to “back an administration plan to roll back fuel-economy standards or risk President Donald Trump’s wrath,” Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday. Siding with California’s call for more climate-forward standards would be seen as an affront.

Bloomberg also reported that Trump’s 2020 budget request, scheduled for release on Monday, seeks to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) from $2.3 billion budget to $700 million. “It’s a shutdown budget,” said Mike Carr, a deputy assistant secretary for the office during the Obama administration. According to the agency’s website, the EERE’s remit is “to create and sustain American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy”—the same goal as the GOP’s new Roosevelt Conservation Caucus!

Up on Capitol Hill, the tone was markedly different. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, held a hearing Tuesday on the “electricity sector in a changing climate.” She statedthat climate change was already “directly impacting” her state’s food security and fishing industry. “This has got to be a priority for all of us,” she said in opening remarks. “Certainly in Alaska we view that there is no choice here.” Ranking Democratic member Joe Manchin of West Virginia cautioned against climate actions that could hurt coal-producing states like his. “The solutions must be grounded in reality, which requires the recognition that fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announcedWednesday that Democrats would introduce a resolution to create a Senate counterpart to the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “We need a committee focused on this, to bring Democrats and Republicans together on an issue that demands progress,” he said on the Senate floor.

In the 2020 race for the White House, climate hawk billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced this week that he would not make a bid for the Democratic nomination, choosing instead to redouble his push for climate action. “First, I will expand my support for the Beyond Coal campaign so that we can retire every single coal-fired power plant over the next 11 years. That’s not a pipe dream. We can do it,” he wrote in a Bloomberg News op-ed. “And second, I will launch a new, even more ambitious phase of the campaign—Beyond Carbon: a grassroots effort to begin moving America as quickly as possible away from oil and gas and toward a 100 percent clean energy economy. At the heart of Beyond Carbon is the conviction that, as the science has made clear, every year matters. The idea of a Green New Deal—first suggested by the columnist Tom Friedman more than a decade ago—stands no chance of passage in the Senate over the next two years. But Mother Nature does not wait on our political calendar, and neither can we.”

China

As the Trump administration moved to all but defund with the federal agency charged with securing “American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy,” China reportedly plans to do whatever is necessary to sustain its current global leadership in solar energy.

As the annual meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress convened this week in smoggy Beijing, the official Xinhuanews agency published this commentary reiterating the central government’s commitment to a lower-carbon economy: “Despite increasing downward pressure on its economy, China is assuring the world of its firm resolution in the pursuit of green development with concrete and self-motivated efforts. For China, green development is a critical element of modernizing its economy. The country sticks to a new development vision that features innovative, coordinated, green and open development for the benefit of all. It is not at the request of others, but on the country’s own initiative. … When China says it ‘puts ecological protection first,’ it is not just lip service. … China has embarked on this bumpy but promising road. Marching toward an era of green development, there will be no turning back.”

The State Development and Investment Corporation, China’s biggest state-owned investment holding company, has abandoned coal in favor of “new” energy, the company’s president said on the sidelines of the annual political meetings. “New energy is the direction of our future development,” Wang Huisheng told reporters. “We have totally quit the coal business and will no longer invest in thermal power plants in China. We are now investing in ethanol, photovoltaic power, wind power storage and other energy sources and acquiring assets overseas.”

Despite the government’s ongoing “war on pollution,” smog in 39 northern cities spiked in February, according to a Reuters analysis of official data. “I’m very comfortable attributing the bad air quality in the second-half of February, in part, to the ongoing increase in heavy industry and coal power plant output around the region,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior air pollution analyst at Greenpeace.

“Local governments that fail to achieve their targets will be held accountable—please wait and see,” Liu Bingjiang, head of air quality management at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “We said [we would win the war on air pollution], and it will be done. You’ll see,” he also said. “We all hate the smog from the bottom of our hearts. And this hatred united us.”

In remarks on Sunday, Zhang Yuanhang, deputy director of the National Air Pollution Prevention and Treatment Center, blamed the persistent smog on coal burning and excessive use of diesel trucks in the heavily industrialized north. “The next step is to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged and carry out an industrial upgrade in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region,” Wang Gengchen, a research fellow at the Atmospheric Physics Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the state-run Global Times on Monday. “It is expected that the air pollution in the area can be solved before 2030 if the government increases its support.”

As an immediate anti-smog measure, the government announced Wednesday that it would impose temporary cuts in industrial production and traffic for the third winter in a row, vowing also to permanently trim capacity in industries such as steel manufacturing and coal-fired power production.

Meanwhile, the island of Hainan on Tuesday released its plan for becoming the first province in China to ban all vehicles run on fossil fuels by 2030. The plan calls for construction of electric vehicle charging stations across the entire island within five years.

India

In a distinct sign of the times, officials in the southern Indian state of Kerala announced Wednesday that outdoor workers would be given a break from noon to 3 p.m. in order to avoid heatstroke and other life-threatening effects of extreme heat. “Summer in Kerala was never harsh,” said Sekhar Kuriakose, a senior official with the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. “This year we saw temperatures rise by 3 degrees (37.4°F) in 14 days during February. That is not normal.”

Ironically, India’s minister of railways and coal on Monday “dedicated” a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. That followed the “inauguration” last Friday of two 660-megawatt coal-fired units in the state of Odisha. “Today is a historic day in power generation,” the Odisha’s chief minister said at the event.

In addition, the Business Standard reported Tuesday that the state of Madhya Pradesh had issued tenders for two new coal-fired power plants with a capacity of 1,320 megawatts each. “These projects have been planned keeping in mind the rising [power] demand of the state,” a state official said. “One reason is also to have coal as base power for the renewable capacity being built in the state.”

India reportedly has some 40,000 megawatts of underutilized and/or financially stressed coal-fired power plants. At the same time, past-due payments from power distribution companies to power generators increased by more than 30 percent from April through January 2018, according to Wednesday’s Economic Times. “Many projects that do not have financial resilience could potentially default and turn into non-performing assets [as a result],” said Ashok Khurana, director general of the Association of Power Producers.

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh Electricity Regulatory Commission sent a letter asking the state’s energy secretary whether 25-year power purchase agreements could be reduced to commitments of just five years. Such a move would allow power distributors to switch to cheaper sources as they become available but leave existing coal-fired, solar and wind power producers in the lurch with higher fixed costs, increasing their risk of insolvency.

Adding to the woes of solar developers in India, the country’s goods and services tax (GST) has added 6 percent to the cost of solar power generation, “while simultaneously reducing the cost of coal-based thermal power by nearly 2 percent for existing plants,” concluded an analysis released Thursday by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi-based think tank, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development based in Canada. “Overall, it appears that the GST has implicitly widened the gap between coal-based power and solar PV, which has otherwise narrowed in the past few years, and could delay the onset of much needed ‘parity’ between the two sources.”

Looking forward

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said the U.S. Senate would vote on a resolution outlining the scope of the Green New Deal within “the next couple weeks,” after saying last week the vote would happen sometime before the August recess. Keeping an eye on this fluid issue should be easy because the Green New Deal continues to generate debate, consternation, insults, hope, alternative proposals and a lot of headlines.

“Cars, lawnmowers, commercial airliners—everything must go,” McConnell said Wednesday, attacking the Green New Deal on the Senate floor. “All this and more can be ours for the low, low price of a staggering expansion of centralized government.” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer cut off a similar rant by Senator John Cornyn of Texas. “I understand my friends on the other side of the aisle don’t like the Green New Deal,” Schumer said. “OK, that’s fine. What’s your plan? Maybe a lot of members think they can get away without having to answer the question. They won’t.”

On the legal front, those 21 young people who sued the federal government back in 2015 for failing to address climate change amassed 30,000 young supporters to ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside a motion to dismiss the case by the U.S. Department of Justice. Their friend-of-the-court brief was one of 15 submitted by environmentalists, faith groups, public heath professionals, industry and trade associations, legal scholars, members of Congress and others. Oral arguments are scheduled for early June.

Further on the horizon, this year’s U.N. climate summit, December 2-13, will convene in Santiago, Chile, right after the city hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in mid November, authorities announced on Thursday. Chile welcomed the annual global conference after Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, withdrew his country’s invitation as a snub to the Paris Agreement. “[Chile’s] Piñera [administration] is making a bold statement in favor of multilateralism & shows how the [government] thinks that free trade & climate action are complementary goals in the pursuit of sustainable development,” tweeted Guy Edward, a climate consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank.