Trump mocks climate change but uses its consequences to promote his fossil fuel agenda


Weekly Climate Review for Feb. 8, 2019:

“Trump’s coal bailout is dead,” The Atlantic declared in January 2018, after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected it. But could climate change help resurrect it?

U.S. President Donald Trump used last week’s polar vortex to once again scoff at global warming, but his administration seized on the event to extol the necessity of coal-fired power, perhaps with an eye toward reviving the failed plan to bail out the no longer economic industry.

In an interview in Saturday’s Washington Examiner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Fossil Fuels Steven Winberg championed the role of coal-fired and nuclear power in keeping the heat on when temperatures dipped to Antarctic levels in the last days of January. “People will pore over the data, and one thing you will see is coal will have stepped up its capacity factors, and nuclear will have stepped up its capacity factors,” he said. “Those are power sources that have fuel on the ground, and that’s absolutely important. If we didn’t have that, it would have been a much worse situation.”

DTE Energy, which serves southeast Michigan, and Xcel Energy, which supplies electricity and natural gas to Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico, did askcustomers to turn down thermostats to ease pressure on the grid last week. And coal joined natural gas in taking up slack from the loss of wind power around Chicago when frostbite was in the air. “It’s just too cold for a lot of wind farms,” Adam Jordan, director of power analytics at Kentucky-based market advisor Genscape, told Bloomberg News. “They can get damaged in weather like this.”

But utilities sounded upbeat about meeting the challenges posed by a melting Arctic, despite record retirements from their coal-fired power fleets. “We were nowhere near our maximum capacity,” said Michael Bryson, vice president of operations for PJM Interconnection, which provides power to 13 states and the District of Columbia and did not support a federal bailout for coal.

“Even when you had minor incidents like a fire at a gas compressor station in Michigan, you still saw a system perform very well,” said Todd Snitchler, vice president of market development at the American Petroleum Institute, which also did not support a bailout.

“On the whole, each asset class pretty much ran exactly as designed [and] expected,” said Brett Blankenship, research director at the research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, who assessed the situation across the Midwest and Northeast.

Despite Winberg’s pitch in the Washington Examiner, coal was conspicuously absent from Trump’s State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday night, which happened to follow the U.S. Department of Labor report that showed coal mining jobs fell to a record low in 2018. Apparently his “love” for “beautiful, clean” coal has waned since last year’s SOTU, although he did tout his efforts to undermine the Paris Agreement’s commitment to decarbonizing the global economy. “We have unleashed a revolution in American energy—the United States is now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas in the world,” he said.

This fossil fuel bonanza has put the U.S. on a trajectory to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 16 percent by 2030, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Washington, DC-based think tank Resources for the Future.

“Bragging about oil and gas production when global scientists are basically shouting from the rooftops to stop drilling and stop fracking is denial at its most dangerous level,” said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

It’s also worth noting that in the official Democratic response to the SOTU, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams only mentioned climate change in passing.

The next day, Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA announcedthat their data showed 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record, corroborating findings by the United Kingdom’s Met Office and the World Meteorological Organization. “Earth’s long-term warming trend continued in 2018 as persistent warmth across large swaths of land and ocean resulted in the globe’s fourth hottest year in NOAA’s 139-year climate record. The year ranks just behind 2016 (warmest), 2015 (second warmest) and 2017 (third warmest),” the federal agency said in a news release. “The past five years have been the warmest years in the modern record, and 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2000,” NASA tweeted.

At the same time, the Met Office said Earth is likely in the middle of what will be the warmest 10 years since record keeping began. “We’ve just made this year’s forecasts and they go out to 2023, and what they suggest is rapid warming globally,” Adam Scaife, who leads long-term forecasting at the Met Office, told BBC News. “…[W]e can now see for the first time, there is a risk of a temporary—and, I repeat, temporary—exceedance of the all-important 1.5°C threshold level set out in the Paris climate agreement. It’s the first time the forecasts have shown a significant risk of exceedance… .”

If the Trump administration holds true to form, it will ignore any link between the Met Office projection and future record heat waves, using them instead to bolster the need for coal-fired power to keep the air conditioning humming.

Climate context

The steady flow of disquieting new scientific findings did not let up this week.

A third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region—home to the world’s highest mountains and 10 major river basins across eight countries—appear to be on course to melt by the end of this century regardless, disrupting water and food supplies to billions of people and likely triggering mass migrations, according to an assessment released Monday. “This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” saidPhilippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal, lead author of the 200 scientists who contributed to the report. “In the best of possible worlds, if we get really ambitious [in implementing the Paris Agreement], even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers and be in trouble. That for us was the shocking finding.”

Meanwhile, the Svalbard Islands between Norway and the North Pole are “warming faster than almost anywhere on Earth,” Reuters reported Monday, citing a new report from the Norwegian Center for Climate Services. With average temperatures up 3°C to 5°C since the 1970s, the islands’ 2,300 human inhabitants and array of wildlife including polar bears are at fast-rising risk from avalanches, landslides, destabilizing permafrost and disappearing sea ice. “No one is doing enough,” Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen said. “We have to do more. … The use of oil and gas has to go down.”

Research published Monday in Scientific Reports compared estimated methane releases from natural sources in the Arctic with those from human activities. “It is important to put the two estimates alongside each other to point out how important it is to urgently address methane emissions from human activities, in particular through a phaseout of fossil fuels,” said co-author Lena Höglund-Isaksson, a senior researcher with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “It is important for everyone concerned about global warming to know that humans are the main source of methane emissions and that if we can control humans’ release of methane, the problem of methane released from the thawing Arctic tundra is likely to remain manageable.”

study published Wednesday in the journal Nature simulated the combined impacts of the melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets by 2100 if humanity continues business as usual. “Under current global government policies, we are heading towards 3 or 4 degrees [Celsius] of warming above pre-industrial levels, causing a significant amount of meltwater from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to enter Earth’s oceans. According to our models, this melt water will cause significant disruptions to ocean currents and change levels of warming around the world,” said lead author Nick Golledge, associate professor at the Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre in New Zealand.

Finally, yet another study confirmed the role of climate change in intensifying Atlantic hurricanes. “Natural variability cannot explain the magnitude of the observed upward trend” of intensity, the authors wrote in findings published Thursday in Nature Communications. “This is a case where science seems to be following common sense,” Benjamin Strauss, president, CEO and chief scientist at Climate Central, toldThe Washington Post. “We’ve had so many badly destructive hurricanes strike the U.S. over the last 15 years that it’s hard not to feel something is amiss.”

Surprises

The Trump administration put seismic testing for oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on hold, the U.S. Department of Interior said in a surprise announcement Tuesday. However, lease sales for drilling rights in the pristine area reportedly remain on course to go forward. “This is a major victory in the fight to protect this special and sacred place,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in response to the stay on testing. “We will not back down until {ANWR] is permanently protected.” He also warned that “any oil company foolish enough to ignore the writing on the wall and pursue leasing in the Arctic refuge will be pursuing a risky investment and drawing the condemnation of both the American public and the financial industry.”

In surprisingly blatant disregard for the Paris Agreement, two U.S. petroleum giants reported growth in their fossil fuel production on Friday. ExxonMobil claimed a 4-percent increase during the fourth quarter of 2018 over 2017, while Chevron’s 2018 output set a company record and marked a 12-percent year-on-year increase. Yet, back in September, ExxonMobil and Chevron were among the first three U.S. petro giants to join the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, formalizing their support for the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C.

In a report on “climate resilience” released Thursday, Chevron pledged to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions but not those of customers using its products. “A decrease in overall fossil fuel emissions is not inconsistent with continued or increased fossil fuel production by the most efficient producers,” the company said. “Our strategy is to be among the most efficient producers.”

ExxonMobil, in its 2019 Energy & Carbon Summary released this week, touted its commitment to the Paris Agreement and support of a carbon tax. “Based on currently anticipated production schedules, we estimate that by 2040 a substantial majority of our year-end 2017 proved reserves will have been produced,” the report says. “Since the 2°C scenarios average implies significant use of oil and natural gas through the middle of the century, we believe these reserves face little risk from declining demand.”

United States

A so-called “Trump Effect” on Republican attitudes about climate change appears to be waning just as Democrats are bringing demands for climate action back to Capitol Hill.

Survey data released Tuesday by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication showed that while Trump’s influence initially decreased the percentage of Republicans who believe humans are accelerating climate change, those beliefs rebounded from 47 percent in 2017 to 52 percent in 2018. “These results suggest that the ‘Trump Effect’ has worn off and that Republicans… are re-engaging [with] the issue,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program, told NBC News.

The House Committee on Natural Resources and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce both held hearings Wednesday about climate change, ending an eight-year dearth of such discussions while Republicans ruled the chamber. “Today, we turn the page on this committee from climate change denial to climate action,” said Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who now chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

In his testimony, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker sounded very different from most of his fellow Republicans. “In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue,” he told Grijalva’s committee. “While we sometimes disagree on specific policies, we understand the science and know the impacts are real because we are [experiencing] them firsthand. This is not a challenge any one of us can solve alone. We need collective action from federal, state and local governments working with the private sector to aggressively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changes that are already in motion.”

“Climate change is real. The need to protect the environment is real,” Representative Greg Walden, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Republican, said in that body’s hearing. “The need to foster a strong U.S. economy and grow American jobs is also real.”

Junior U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the youngest House member, and senior Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, on Thursday released their joint resolution “recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal.”

“Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us,” Ocasio-Cortez told “Morning Edition” on NPR. “…[N]o one has actually scoped out what that larger solution would entail. And so that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish with the Green New Deal.” The resolution does not call for an immediate end to the use of fossil fuels nor a 70-percent tax on the rich, as some observers had speculated. Instead, it “recognizes” the need to shift the country to “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”

In the unlikely event the resolution were to pass both houses of Congress, it would not be binding. But it only aims to begin fleshing out a bipartisan proposal for 2020, Ocasio-Cortez told “MTP Daily” host Chuck Todd on MSNBC. “Never have the interests of all Americans been as united on a single issue,” Markey said at a press conference with Ocasio-Cortez. “From the air we breathe, to the jobs that employ us, to the neighborhoods we live in, to the economy we operate in, climate change defines our existence.”

News of the proposed Green New Deal spread across the world, but advocates of climate action were not universally pleased. “We urgently need a bold and ambitious Green New Deal that tackles fossil fuels head-on,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Food & Water Watch. “We support the ambition and scale of this resolution, and we are heartened by its recognition that climate change poses a grave threat to healthy food and clean water, but any legislation that does not explicitly address the urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground is insufficient.”

Some media outlets tried to make ado about the fact that Ocasio-Cortez was not among the eight Democrats appointed Thursday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Pelosi claimed Ocasio-Cortez had been invited but declined, which she cheerfully confirmed on MSNBC.

To put icing on the week’s climate cake, around 60 House Democrats and once Republican introduced a non-binding resolution Friday to “reaffirm” the commitment of Congress to the Paris Agreement and to express support for the United State remaining in the global accord.

In other climate related news, CNN reported Saturday that between April and August 2018, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler participated in more than 50 meetings with representatives of companies and industry groups subject to EPA regulation but met with only three environmental groups. EPA spokesman Michael Abboud shrugged off the implications in a statement that said, “Acting Administrator Wheeler is happy to meet with those who actually request meetings.”

Wheeler announced last week that he had named John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama who denies any threat from climate change, as one of the EPA’s science advisors. “There’s a benefit, not a cost, to producing energy from carbon,” Christy told E&E News in an interview after the announcement. He said he aimed to use his appointment to question mainstream climate science and also the “endangerment finding” that legally underpins the EPA’s mandate to regulate greenhouse gas emissions—the latter being a high-priority target for far-right groups like the Heartland Institute. “I think the endangerment finding is one that doesn’t stand on the best science that we have out there, mainly because the best science is expressing [the] tremendous uncertainties we have on this issue,” Christy said. “The overconfidence we have on the climate issue in the climate community is incredibly large, and we need to pull back on that.”

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee voted Tuesday to send Wheeler’s nomination to head the EPA to the full Senate for approval.

Trump on Monday tweeted his intention to nominate former oil-and-gas lobbyist David Bernhardt as U.S. Secretary of the Interior to replace disgraced Ryan Zinke, in whose place Bernhardt is currently acting. Bernhardt’s fans praised him as an adept insider because of his experience as a Hill staffer and former attorney at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush. Critics say he will readily hand over protected federal lands to fossil fuel producers. “The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his commitment to pandering to oil, coal and gas executives make former interior secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging environmentalist in comparison,” said Vicky Wyatt of Greenpeace USA. “And Ryan Zinke was a disaster.”

Along similar lines, Trump on Wednesday nominated David Malpass, now under secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Treasury, to replace climate-forward Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank. Malpass is expected to be a disrupter of Trump’s ilk. “Now is an opportune time to discuss the concerns about the rapid increase in globalism,” Malpass said at a Council on Foreign Relations event in late 2017, adding that “multilateralism has gone substantially too far—to the point where it is hurting U.S. and global growth.” Sounds a lot like what Trump said about the Paris Agreement.

China

News out of China was light this week as the country welcomed the new Year of the Pig and celebrated the annual Spring Festival.

Some environmental groups used the occasion to suggest that Chinese should feast on less meat from pigs and other livestock that emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases—an ask that fits nicely with the government’s 2016 guidelines recommending people cut their meat consumption in half for the sake of personal and climatic health.

“Chinese emissions can be reduced by almost 10 percent in the next decade if Chinese people just ate half as much meat,” Jen Leung, climate program director for U.S.-based WildAid, told Thomson Reuters Foundation News. “So, just try eating a little less pork in honor of a healthy Year of the Pig.” The Virginia-headquartered animal rights group PETA used China’s Twitter equivalent to promote #PigYearDontEatThem. “Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined,” said Jason Baker, PETA’s Asia director.

On the energy front, a privately-owned Chinese multinational reportedly sealed a deal with a Riyadh-based menswear manufacturer to jointly develop the kingdom’s first industrial park for making thin film for solar cells.

Under the $1-billion agreement, Beijing-based Hanergy Thin Film Power Group and Ajlan & Brothers “will develop an unspecified number of renewable energy manufacturing hubs in the kingdom,” according to ArabianIndustry.com. “The renewable energy facilities are bound to reform the landscape of the country’s energy industry,” Ajlan & Brothers Deputy Chairman Mohamed Al Ajlan said.

Saudi Arabia has a lot of sun and a national mandate to diversify its petro economy, while Chinese solar companies are looking for new markets abroad as demand at home softens. “We realize the potential of renewable energy in Saudi Arabia and have set out an organized and specific roadmap to diversify our business in the country while supporting the advancement of renewable energy,” said Wei Qiang, head of Hanergy’s operations in Saudi Arabia.

India

India’s stubborn allegiance to coal made more headlines over the past seven days.

Greenpeace India, which campaigns against the country’s dependence on coal-fired power, announced Saturday that a prolonged government freeze on its bank accounts had forced the closure of two regional offices and the layoff of 40 of its 60 employees. “The government can only freeze our accounts and shut our offices, but Greenpeace is an idea that can never be extinguished,” the group said in a press release. “While most of us will not be employed with the organization, the campaign for environmental justice and peace will continue.”

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintainsthat Greenpeace India received money in violation of the country’s law regulating receipt of foreign funding. Greenpeace denies the allegations. “The crackdown is not going to stop Greenpeacers across India from doing their real work—to work on urgent issues of climate change,” said Campaign Director Diya Deb. “Indians donate to Greenpeace India because they believe in their right to clean air, right to safe food and clean energy. They trust us with their hard earned money to create a healthier, cleaner and sustainable environment for our present and future generations. We will not let one obstacle get in the way of our real work.”

In an ironic juxtaposition, India on Monday signed an agreement with Poland “to promote trade and investment in the coal sector, enhance the understanding of coal related energy issues, particularly clean coal technologies, and promote the exchange of information on policies, programs and technologies with special emphasis on coal exploration and exploitation, research and development, technical cooperation and capacity building.”

The Press Trust of India reported Monday that the Ministry of Power had decided to “procure” an additional 2.5 gigawatts of electricity from economically “stressed” coal-fired power plants unable to secure power purchase agreements (PPAs). That would bring the government’s total procurement from uneconomic coal-fired plants to 4.4 gigawatts. “This is a positive development for stressed thermal assets affected by lack of progress in signing of long-term and medium-term PPAs over the past five years,” said Sabyasachi Majumdar, a senior vice president at ICRA Limited, an Indian credit rating agency. However, he added, other coal-fired facilities with a collective capacity of more than 10 gigawatts remain without PPAs.

Wood Mackenzie on Thursday joined the chorus of energy industry experts warning that India looks unlikely to meet its renewable energy targets. “As bid prices stabilize and costs continue to drop, long-term development remains positive but still not sufficient to meet the 100-gigawatt solar target by 2022,” said Rishab Shreshta, a solar analyst at the firm. “India faces short-term uncertainty due to the imposing of various taxes and levies on solar products, the cancellation of tenders and tariff renegotiations [for existing PPAs].”

The outlook appears similarly dicey for India’s goal of upping natural gas to 15 percent of its energy mix by 2030—a nine-point increase. “The slow pace of infrastructure build-out and conflicting policies continue to limit the development of the gas sector, which is struggling with stagnant domestic production,” Kaushik Chatterjee, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said today. “The government’s stated aim of increasing the share of natural gas in the energy mix to 15 percent by 2030 from [today’s] 6 percent currently looks increasingly ambitious.”

Looking forward

“The millennial era of climate politics has arrived,” The Atlantic proclaimed on Thursday, after U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled her Green New Deal resolution. “This is us taking over the issue that, decades ago, people said would be ours to deal with. This is what the next generation of the issue looks like,” said Greg Carlock, a policy advisor at Data for Progress, which bills itself as a think tank for a new generation of progressives. “The world right now is watching what a bunch of American millennials do in Congress.” Indeed. Keep watching this space.

Another space to watch is that of Juliana v. United States, the Oregon climate-negligence lawsuit brought by kids so long ago that some of the plaintiffs are now young adults. In a surprise motion filed Thursday night, they asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to stop the Trump administration from approving new fossil fuel extraction or infrastructure on federal lands. “The evidence shows that these systemic activities must be enjoined immediately to preserve plaintiffs’ ability to obtain a remedy in this case that redresses their injuries and protects the public interest,” their legal team told the court, which is still considering a request from the U.S. Department of Justice to dismiss the case.

Further out, keep an eye on a proposed 10-country alliance led by Russia to “manage the global oil market,” as it was described in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. Russia is the largest greenhouse gas emitter to have not ratified the Paris Agreement and it sided with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at December’s U.N. climate summit in an attempt to sideline the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calling for rapid global decarbonization. In a curious twist, Climate Home News reported Wednesday that Russia is “reviewing” its ratification of the Paris Agreement.