Scientists and policymakers struggle over delivery of grim climate prognosis


MacArthur Foundation’s Oct. 5 Weekly Climate Report:
A Washington Post headline on Wednesday nicely summed up the sobering news coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting this week in South Korea: “Climate scientists are struggling to find the right words for very bad news.”

Negotiators from more than 130 countries convened Monday with some 50 scientists in Incheon for a five-day effort to finalize the findings of a comprehensive, extensively peer-reviewed report about the slim likelihood of holding global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial times—the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement.

“This is a critical point in history,” Youssef Nassef, director of adaptation at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the opening session. “The window of opportunity is rapidly shrinking, and we must all work together to turn things around.”

But even agreeing on the text of the report before its release on Sunday—let alone “turning things around”—proved to be a heavy lift. India’s Business Standard reported seeing a written request from the United States for “more than a hundred dilutions, alterations and deletions.”

“I understand there are some climate change skeptics out there, but let me tell you this: Truth is truth. Climate change cannot be denied,” Kim Eunkyung, South Korea’s environment minister, said on the meeting’s sidelines.

The draft report concluded that the “truth” is 1.5°C is not a safe limit, and that the Paris Agreement’s official goal of 2°C is well into the danger zone for catastrophic climatic changes. “Two degrees is no longer the two degrees we thought it was,” said Kaisa Kosonen, climate policy adviser at Greenpeace International. “It’s increasingly becoming meaningless as a climate goal, when you look at the risks that would come with it and what we are already witnessing with one degree [of warming]. Why would you have a goal that doesn’t protect anything that we care about?”

“Half a degree doesn’t sound like much till you put it in the right context,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “It’s 50 percent more than we have now.” And we now have melting polar ice sheets, rising sea levels and increasingly dangerous and costly weather extremes.

“The pledges countries made during the Paris climate accord don’t get us anywhere close to what we have to do,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University and one of the IPCC report’s authors. “They haven’t really followed through with actions to reduce their emissions in any way commensurate with what they profess to be aiming for.”

“There are now a very small number of pathways [to 1.5°C] that don’t involve carbon removal,” said Jim Skea, a professor on natural sciences at Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate change mitigation. But carbon removal is not, at present, an option. “None of the proposed techniques can realistically be implemented on a global scale in the next few decades,” said Mark Lawrence, director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany. “In other words, we can’t rely on these technologies to make any significant contribution to holding the average temperature increase under the 2°C limit, much less the 1.5° limit.”

To hold warming at no more than 1.5°C, the world would have to cut coal-fired power generation to a third of what it is today in the next 12 years, according to report’s draft findings. “Will we see it happen by 2030? Probably not—not in any models we’re seeing at the moment,” said Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies for Australasia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The capacity of the world’s coal-fired power stations could actually increase by a third if the 1,380 plants now in the works are built, according to an analysis released Thursday by the German nonprofit Urgewald. “Since the Paris… Agreement was negotiated in December 2015, the world’s installed coal-fired capacity grew by 92,000 [megawatts]—an increase equal to the combined operating coal fleets of Russia and Japan,” Urgewald said in a press release. “Every coal plant that goes online puts a new stumbling block between us and the Paris goals,” said Heffa Schuecking, founder and director of Urgewald.

Concurrently, demand for petrochemicals to make plastics, fertilizers, tires and other mainstays of the current global economy is set to significantly bolster world oil demand—and related greenhouse gas emissions—until at least 2050, according to a report released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA). “When we look at the years to come, the petrochemical sector is by far the largest driver of global oil demand growth—much higher than cars, much higher than trucks, aviation and shipping,” said Fatih Birol, the intergovernmental organization’s executive director.

“Overall, the idea that we can limit warming to 1.5°C is so ridiculous that it doesn’t seem to even merit thinking about it,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

As of this writing, the IPCC meeting in Incheon had gone into overtime and was expected to continue into Saturday.

Climate context

Too little is known about the possible health implications of employing geoengineering as a climate solution, warned authors of commentary published last Friday in Nature Climate Change.

“We’re a step before saying these technologies will probably save lives or saying they’re too dangerous to use,” said lead author Colin Carlson, who co-wrote the warning while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). “Right now, what we know is climate and disease are already closely linked, and that raises basic questions about climate engineering. Now, we need answers.” Carlson and his coauthor Christopher Trisos, also a former SESYNC fellow, are now part of an international, interdisciplinary team in search of funding to fast-track critical answers. “There is no risk-free path at this point” in dealing with climate change, said David Morrow, research director for the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, who is among a growing number of scientists advocating a global governance structure to prevent potentially cataclysmic consequences of unregulated solar geoengineering.

Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice just reached its minimum extent for 2018, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. At 1.77 million square miles, it ties with 2008 and 2010 for the sixth lowest minimum in nearly 40 years of satellite monitoring. “It’s a fair amount above our record low, which was a really extreme year in 2012, but it’s much lower than what used to be normal conditions in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the center. “We’re taking an area that was basically the size of the Lower 48 United States that was continuously ice-covered even through the summer,” he said. “Now we’ve lost basically about half of that ice cover… .”

At the same time, Alaska has been basking in some of the mildest early fall weather its residents have ever experienced. Temperatures in Anchorage topped normal for 32 days straight days, with little rain. “The weather has been truly terrifying this year,” tweeted Peter Stanton, who lives in Ketchikan. Scientists say they’ve never seen a high-pressure system like the one responsible for the freakish dry warmth. “On a two- to three-week time scale, the recent ridge over the Bering Sea was one of the most intense on record, anywhere in the world, when compared to the usual climate of the region,” tweeted meteorologist Richard James.

Surprises

The Wall Street Journal, which is just shy of agnostic about climate change, on Wednesday published a front-page story acknowledging that the global insurance industry no longer questions the fact that climate change is now a mainstay of underwriting. Insurance companies are staffing up with climate experts and trying mightily to figure out how to adjust premiums to fully account for the growing risks. “Coastal flooding will clearly become a bigger issue in the long term,” said Edi Schmid, Swiss Re’s Group Chief Underwriting Officer. “We can offer protection for hurricane losses or flood losses or other perils, but if certain coastal areas are so exposed, insurance becomes no longer viable. It becomes even uninsurable.”

In other surprising news, the number of patents filed globally for renewable energy innovations increased by 43 percent from 2016 to 2017. More than 14,800 patents were filed in 2017, up from 10,500 in 2016, according to data released Monday by the London-based commercial law firm EMW. China led the world with 76 percent of all renewable energy patents, followed by the United States, Australia, India and Canada. Solar energy patents made up 56 percent of the total.

While Big Oil has invested more than $17 million to defeat a first-of-its-kind carbon tax on the November ballot in Washington state, Royal Dutch Shell surprisingly opted to remain on the sidelines despite its reservations about the measure. “That Washingtonians are proposing a price on carbon is a good thing. But it’s my view, this fee was designed with some considerable imperfections,” Shell CEO Ben van Beurden told The Seattle Times. “Because of that, I can’t support it. But we are not going to fight it either.”

United States

The Trump administration’s undoing of climate protections continued apace this week, as if the news out of Incheon, South Korea, pertained to some planet other than Earth.

President Donald Trump basked in his own adulation over Sunday’s announcement of the United States’ new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, which revised the North American Free Trade Agreement and rebranded it as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. As insisted upon by Team Trump, the terms weaken any environmental considerations and, according to experts, ease the way for polluters. “Even after Trump leaves office, Trump’s NAFTA [revision] could extend his polluting legacy for years,” said Doug Norlen, director of economic policy at Friends of the Earth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday released a draft proposal to blunt federal regulation of climate-warming refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) without any mention of the Obama administration’s concerns about potential risks to vulnerable human populations. “Certain populations and life stages, including children, the elderly, and the poor, are most vulnerable to climate-related health effects,” read the language that disappeared. “Impacts to children are expected from heat waves, air pollution, infectious and waterborne illnesses, and mental health effects resulting from extreme weather events.” The EPA referred questions about the deletion to the White House, which refused to comment.

The Washington Post reported that the EPA is considering doing away with similar considerations in regulating emissions of mercury—a neurotoxin that can impair young brains—from coal-fired power plants. “I just think it’s a little fuzzy math when you say, ‘Reduce mercury and we have all these other benefits over here,’ as the shiny object,” Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview. “The fraudulent denial of real-world benefits from clean air and climate safeguards is the unholy grail of EPA haters and polluting industry lobbyists,” said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air, Climate and Clean Energy program.

Reuters reported that on Monday in Chicago “two dozen activists stormed” the EPA’s sole scheduled hearing on its proposed replacement for the Obama administration’s regulation limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants. “We are here today to reject this false, outrageous and murderous energy scam,” the protesters repeated during the 15 minutes they interrupted the proceedings. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, testified, calling the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule “a full retreat in our battle against climate change.” In contrast, Illinois state Senator Dale Fowler, a Republican, voiced his support for ACE to protect his southern Illinois district’s six coal mines that employ 1,300 miners and the consumers he claimed would have faced higher electricity bills under Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Borrowing a page from the EPA’s playbook, the U.S. Department of Interior has quietly implemented a policy that restricts the use of certain science in the agency’s rulemaking. Like the EPA, Interior now prohibits the use of scientific studies based on data that is not entirely accessible to the public, even if the restrictions are aimed at protecting the confidentiality of people harmed by pollution or other environmental degradation. While the agency frames the policy as a move toward transparency, critics claim it clears the way for unfettered oil and gas drilling on public lands and relaxing protection of endangered species. “This is an attempt to cherry-pick the kind of science that they want to put forward,” said Yogin Kothari, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In defiance of the EPA’s effort to relax fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration, California’s Air Resources Board voted last Friday to require automakers to follow Obama-era emissions requirements for all cars and light trucks sold in the state. “The health of our state, our nation and the globe are at stake, and that is a fight worth having,” said state Senator Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, who sits on the board.

China

Monday was China’s National Day, followed by the National Golden Week holiday that extends through Sunday, so climate-related news out of China was minimal this week.

Just before the long break, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a notice Saturday warning to industrial air polluters that they should not expect this winter ‘s anti-smog campaign to be any less rigorous than it was last year, even though the government has dropped uniform production cuts across industries. “Pollution emitters… will still be shut down or be ordered to enforce capacity cuts if they exceed emission standards,” spokesperson Liu Youbin said in a briefing.

Since China’s government announced limits on increasing the country’s solar power capacity and abruptly ended subsidies for solar equipment makers on June 1, business has fallen steeply and stock for companies in the sector have lost nearly $44 billion in value, according to Liu Hanyuan, chairman of the Tongwei Group, a private Chinese conglomerate involved in solar manufacturing. Liu also talked of growing debt and employee layoffs.

In a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, a team of mostly Chinese scientists warned that China could face economic losses of around $84 billion a year from drought if global warming exceeds 2°C. Drought already robbed the country’s economy of about $7 billion a year between 1984 and 2017, the researchers concluded. A temperature rise of 1.5°C could see that figure jump to $47 billion annually, they said.

India

India logged another week of high-level advocacy for global climate action, despite continued signs of difficulties in implementing those aspirations at home.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed his meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin with a joint statement today calling for all countries to fully implement the Paris Agreement.

Earlier in the week, Modi addressed the first Assembly of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a coalition India founded with France to promote solar power in countries rich with sunshine. “We have a dream [of] one world, one sun, one grid,” Modi said. “We generate round-the-clock electricity from [the] sun as it sets in one part of the world but rises in another part. [The] sun never sets for [the] entire earth.” He talked of the sun supplanting the role of oil. “Whatever role OPEC is playing today to meet the energy requirement of the world, that would be played by ISA in coming days,” he said. “Whatever role is played by oil wells today would be played by sunlight.”

That heady sentiment was punctuated Wednesday when Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Japan-based SoftBank Group, promised free electricity from its solar projects in ISA countries at the end of initial 25-year power purchase agreements (PPAs) to recover financing costs. “I have this special offer, which I discussed with Prime Minister Modi,” Son said. “I will offer free electricity after 25 years. … Renewable energy is the solution. Prime Minister Modi and I share exactly… the same vision.”

But Indian “states are not very keen on purchasing” solar power, even at today’s rock-bottom rates, R.K. Singh, the country’s power minister recently wrote to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, The Financial Express reported on Monday. This leaves solar energy installations at risk of becoming stranded assets, Singh warned. The intermittent nature of solar energy adds to states’ reservations, he said, but surprise costs such as the recently imposed 25-percent safeguard duty on imported solar equipment is making them even more wary. “…[T]he states flatly [refuse] to sign PPAs for renewable energy if the rates are any higher,” Singh said.

Looking forward

Monday is D-Day for the IPCC. “The decisions we make now about whether we let 1.5 or 2 degrees or more happen will change the world enormously,” Heleen de Coninck, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report set for release Sunday, told BBC News. “Lives of people will never be the same again either way, but we can influence which future we end up with.”

A press conference about the IPCC’s finding for registered media is scheduled for Sunday. A live-streamed press conference will follow on Monday morning in South Korea, which will still be Sunday in the Americas, Europe and Africa.

If you have been waiting for recent record rains, heat waves and red tides to push climate change into the campaign spotlight before voters go to the polls for U.S. midterm elections on November 6, it’s not going to happen, according to a New York Times analysis published Monday. “The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans running for federal office do not mention the threat of global warming in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media,” the Times reported. “In polls of voters’ top priorities, climate change rarely garners more than 7 to 10 percent, trailing health care, jobs and immigration.” Even billionaire climate hawk Tom Steyer has shifted his tens of millions of dollars in donations toward the midterms from climate change messaging to simply urging Americans under 35 to vote. Climate change “is very much an issue, but it’s not the issue,” Steyer said. “The places that are most competitive, most important for Democrats’ electoral fortunes, are places where talking about climate mitigation [and] major changes in our energy makeup [have] real economic consequences,” said Megan Mullin, an assistant professor of environmental politics at Duke University. In other words, they are kryptonite for candidates.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to consider a bailout for uneconomic coal-fired power plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. Look for that subject to resurface after the president’s nomination Wednesday of sympathetic U.S. Department of Energy staffer Bernard McNamee to fill the vacant seat on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission once held by a Republican opposed to the plan. Platts reported Monday that PJM Interconnection, which transmits electricity in 13 states and the District of Columbia, released a new study that shows the grid will remain reliable and resilient despite the upcoming retirement of 4 gigawatts of FirstEnergy Solutions’ coal and diesel power plants. “The planned deactivations can proceed as scheduled without compromising reliability in the PJM transmission grid,” the company said in a statement. So, the battle lines remain firmly in place.