Trump’s U.N. bluster and SCOTUS hearings eclipse weighty climate news


MacArthur Foundation’s Weekly Climate Review from Sept. 28, 2018:
This week brought a barrage of notable climate news that was all but obscured by the media’s obsession with Donald Trump’s braggadocio at the United Nations and the alleged boozy, teenage sexploits of his U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

While both spectacles deserved attention, it defies logic that they largely drowned out news of shocking scientific findings and related proceedings in Manhattan at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) and Climate Week NYC 2018, the annual event hosted by the Climate Group, the U.N. and the city of New York.

“Just pick the news up today. You won’t see anything about climate change,” California Governor Jerry Brown said at Monday’s Climate Week opening ceremony. “There’s a lot of news, but there’s not much news on the very topic we’re talking about, which is an absolute existential necessity for the continuation of our civilization as we know it.”

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres opened the annual meeting of leaders of U.N. member nations by calling out climate change as “a direct existential threat” that’s moving much faster than efforts to contain it.

When U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the body, he basically slammed the U.N.’s raison d’être. “We reject the ideology of globalism…,” he said. “Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty, not just from global governance but also from other new forms of coercion and domination.”

“If Trump’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly achieved anything, it is this: It helped rally the world against Trump’s unilateralism and protectionism,” wrote a columnist for the government-owned China Daily.

Following Trump at the podium, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that international trade pacts should not be signed with countries that don’t respect the Paris Agreement, from which Trump intends to withdraw the United States as soon as legally possible. “Let’s have our trade agreements take on board our environmental obligations,” Macron said. He later told Bloomberg News, “We are asking a lot of efforts [from] our farmers, our [industries], our citizens precisely to make such a shift [to a low-carbon economy]. If you opened your market to products and goods coming from a country that decided not to accept the same rules and constraints, it would be totally crazy.”

To underscore Macron’s assertion, Canada and the European Union on Wednesday renewed their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with a stipulation that the parties would “promote the mutual supportiveness of trade and climate policies” vis-à-vis the Paris Agreement.

A new investment fund for green businesses and the creation of a tool to measure cities’ tailpipe emissions were among the announcements made at the “One Planet” summit on climate financing convened by the French president on Wednesday. “We have to shift one third of… global financing to financing of climate change and new climate action,” Macron said. “So governments, the World Bank, all the development banks, business leaders and investors, it is our job. Everybody is waiting for us and everybody today wants us just to accelerate.” The World Bank announced a $1-billion pledge toward stimulating development of battery storage technology. “None of us can opt out of severe weather events or rising sea levels, so nor should we have the ability to opt out of action either,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the participants.

“Why is climate change faster than we are?” Guterres askedthe UNGA on Wednesday. “The only possible answer is that we still lack strong leadership to take the bold decisions needed to put our economies and societies on the path of low-carbon growth and climate-resilience.”

Indeed, when three American oil giants Monday made good on their promise to join 10 of the world’s other biggest oil and gas companies in what some expert observers call an unprecedented vow to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden talked of “evolution” rather than revolution, insisting “all these things we cannot do by forcing it down people’s throats. In the end it is the consumer that has to decide.” Patrick McCully, climate and energy program director at the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, dismissed the effort as dodging the boldness called for by Guterres. “The math is clear,” McCully said. To avoid “catastrophic climate change we need to stop expanding fossil fuel use and start the managed decline of the [oil and gas] sector.”

Climate context

Duke University climate scientist Drew Shindell gave the Guardian a chilling preview this week of the latest findings from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to which he contributed and are due out in early October.

It would be “extraordinarily challenging” to hold the world to warming of only 1.5°C above preindustrial times, as aspired to in the Paris Agreement, “and we are nowhere near on track to doing that,” Shindell said. “While it’s technically possible, it’s extremely improbable, absent a real sea change in the way we evaluate risk. We are nowhere near that.” That is, a steep plunge in the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transportation, a wholesale global embrace of solar and wind energy, and swift deployment of technology to vacuum massive amounts of greenhouse gases out of Earth’s atmosphere. “The penetration rate of new technology historically takes a long time,” Shindell said. “It’s not simple to change these things. There aren’t good examples in history of such rapid, far reaching transitions.”

As a result, the world’s southernmost ocean waters around Antarctica will continue to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world’s oceans, which research published Monday in Nature Geoscience definitively attributed to human activities, according to its authors. “The observed warming is due to human influence,” said lead author Neil Swart, a research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. “That may have been suspected or proposed before, but this is the evidence that really proves it.”

Bloomberg Businessweek on Wednesday published a sobering glimpse at the small but growing group of researchers contemplating “social collapse” brought by rapid climate change and the “deep adaptation” that will become necessary in response. Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability leadership at the U.K.’s University of Cumbria, is among the most pessimistic. “The evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war,” he wrote in a paper he posted as a blog after it was rejected by a scientific journal. “We need to appreciate what kind of adaptation is possible.”

Surprises

Scientists for the first time estimated the economic losses each country is likely to suffer for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, which they laid out in a paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change. Surprisingly—and ironically—they found the only country that would suffer more than the United States was India. “Our analysis demonstrates that the argument that the primary beneficiaries of reductions in [U.S.] carbon dioxide emissions would be other countries is a total myth,” said lead author Kate Ricke, an assistant professor at the University of San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. President Trump has repeatedly declared that implementation of the Paris Agreement would benefit China and India at America’s expense.

Thursday brought a surprising bit of one-upmanship. On Monday, the now 13 fossil fuel giants in the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative pledged to reduce their methane emissions more than 20 percent by 2025, with an ultimate goal of eventually ending methane flaring. Three days later, Detroit-based DTE Energy—a utility that provides power from natural gas to 1.3 million residential and business customers in Michigan and will add millions more as it retires all of its coal-fired plants by 2040—announced it would “reduce methane emissions from its natural gas utility operations by more than 80 percent by 2040.”

In a surprise move, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlandsstopped funding the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) over accusations that Executive Director Erik Solheim spent nearly $500,000 to travel 80 percent of his work time during a 22-month period. One climate scientist termed the former Norwegian environment minister’s travel habit an “obscene CO2 hypocrisy.” The affable Solheim cut short his trip to the UNGA this week to return to UNEP headquarters in Nairobi to address the matter. “Making good on our global agenda demands engagement with the world,” Solheim said in defense of his alleged gallivanting. A leaked draft of an internal audit concluded his travel was “contrary to the ethos of carbon emission reduction” and was a “reputation risk to the organization,” the Guardian reported on Tuesday.

United States

A coalition of automakers, utilities, environmental and consumer groups, unions, tech companies and both Republican and Democratic elected officials on Wednesday launched a campaign to cut energy consumption by the U.S. transportation sector 50 percent by 2050. At the same time, the Alliance to Save Energy’s 50×50 Commission on U.S. Transportation Sector Efficiency released a report detailing the “bipartisan policy solutions” and private sector innovations and investments necessary to achieve that goal.

“We can simultaneously unlock innovation and new technologies and make mobility easier, faster and better, all while using dramatically less energy,” said Jason Hartke., the group’s president. “Charting the right path now will help us avoid unpredictable fuel costs, rising greenhouse gas emissions and lost American competitiveness. ”

That announcement came as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was winding up three days of hearings about its proposed rollback of fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks established under the Obama administration. More than 130 people, including doctors, advocates of electric vehicles and asthma sufferers, asked to speak at Monday’s hearing in Fresno, California. “No one wins if our customers are not buying the new highly efficient products offered in our showrooms,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in written testimony. “The standards must account for consumer willingness and ability to pay for newer technologies in order for all the benefits of new vehicles to be realized.” Paul Gipe, a 67-year-old cycling enthusiast, drove from Bakersfield to speak against the proposal because the air quality there sometimes prevents him from riding his bike. “It’s a step backward, and it’s a statement that air pollution is acceptable,” he said.

Tuesday’s hearing in Dearborn, Michigan, home to Ford Motor Company, attracted close to 150 speakers. Rhett Ricart, an Ohio car dealer who is regulatory chairman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, likened government imposition of more fuel-efficient cars on drivers to forcing a 3-year-old to eat vegetables. “If he doesn’t like vegetables, you can’t stuff his mouth full of them,” Ricart said.

In Pittsburgh on Wednesday, some 140 people signed up to comment. “This proposed rule makes no sense whatsoever,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, which is based in the Steel City. “It would just add to an already burdened region. Vehicles are a second leading source of air pollution, so why would we put a rule in place to make that more impactful?”

In a related bombshell, The Washington Post reported today that “deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement” on the Trump administration’s proposed rollback of fuel efficiency standards, the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that the world is currently on a trajectory to warm a catastrophic 4°C above preindustrial times by 2100. “The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed,” the Post reporters concluded. “I was shocked when I saw it,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who testified against the rollback Monday in Fresno. “These are their numbers. They aren’t our numbers.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported Thursday that the EPA plans to dissolve its Office of the Science Advisor, which, according to its website, “provides leadership in… science policy development and implementation to ensure the best possible use of science at the agency” and to “ensure regulations are interpreted and enforced in a manner consistent with the science supporting them.” The agency said in a prepared statement that the closure aims to “eliminate redundancies.”

In a blow to the Trump administration’s national security rationale for a proposed bailout of uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants, members of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday concluded that power supplies held up well during Hurricane Florence, with the preponderance of outages caused by trees falling on transmission lines rather than any weaknesses in the energy mix.

A Media Matters for America analysis of television coverage of Hurricane Florence from September 7 to 19 found that the link between slower, wetter hurricanes and climate change was mentioned less often than it was during the record rains brought by last year’s Hurricane Harvey. “CBS and PBS each aired fewer segments on the links between climate change and hurricanes than they did last year during coverage of Harvey,” Media Matters reported. “ABC was the only network that did not mention climate change in its coverage of Florence at all. … NBC aired just one segment that reported on the links between climate change and hurricanes. … CNNaired two segments that discussed the links between climate change and hurricanes, down from five such segments that ran during Harvey coverage. … MSNBC aired four segments that discussed the links between climate change and hurricanes, down from five that ran during Harvey coverage. … Fox News aired six segments that mentioned climate change in its Florence coverage, but all of them were dismissive of the issue.”

China

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday urged world leaders at the U.N. to take climate action as a matter of critical urgency.

“Implementing the Paris Agreement honestly is a political commitment made by leaders of each country,” Wang said. “It’s also an inescapable legal obligation and historical responsibility that corresponds with the trend of global development that each country should take.” He pointed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure abroad as an example of his country’s willingness “to join hands with all countries to make efforts to walk on a sustainable path of green and low-carbon and create a home planet featuring bluer skies, cleaner water and greener mountains for our offspring.”

Wang’s coaxing came the same day that news broke about a new CoalSwarm analysis of satellite imagery showing that China may have 259 gigawatts of new coal-fired power generation capacity under development—an amount the authors equated to the entire U.S. coal power fleet. “This new evidence that China’s central government hasn’t been able to stop the runaway coal-fired power plant building is alarming—the planet can’t tolerate another U.S.-sized block of plants to be built,” said Ted Nace, founder and director of CoalSwarm.

“It is a story of policy conflict between the states and provinces and the central government’s overarching national objectives,” Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies for Australasia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told SBS News. “The provincial governments are all about economic growth for their province, and so as soon as the central government takes their eye off them, they very quickly want to step back to the way they were operating before, which is to kick-start domestic construction activity.”

Also on Wednesday, Bloomberg News reported seeing a draft plan by China’s Development and Reform Commission calling for the country’s current goal of generating 20 percent of its energy use from “non-fossil fuels” by 2030 to be increased to 35 percent by 2030.

“In the past eight years, China has canceled or shelved an amazing number of coal-fired power plants,” Buckley also told SBS News. “I have absolutely no doubt China is absolutely wedded to transitioning to decarbonize their economy and to transition their energy system to resolve the massive air pollution problems they’ve got.”

India

“India is willing to take the lead in climate action,” Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said Wednesday at the U.N. “Our commitment to combat climate change is rooted in our ethos, which considers the Earth as mother.”

Unfortunately, while that aspiration has remained steadfast, government policies to bring it to fruition have not.

As a consequence, the state-run Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) received only one bid in an auction for 10 gigawatts of solar power development, the Press Trust of India reported Thursday. The poor response prompted the SECI to extend the bidding deadline—for a third time—to October 12. “[The] SECI deferring such a large tender is not a good sign,” said Govind Pingle, operations and business development manager at Goa-based solar equipment provider Agrawal Renewable Energy.

Meanwhile, the government’s first tender for 3 gigawatts of solar panel manufacturing received no bids, which sources in the industry blamed on a lack of subsidies from the government. “Governments across the globe, including China, support solar manufacturing through subsidy,” said an executive in the sector who requested anonymity. “In India, there is market uncertainty due to high import[s] coupled with high interest and capital cost[s].”

An analysis this week in Bloomberg News concluded that India’s new “safeguard” duty on imports of solar equipment from China and Malaysia has failed to boost domestic manufacturing enough to meet the needs of solar developers, but has led to cost increases of as much as 14 percent for some projects reliant in imported components.

Ending the week on a more hopeful note, Tata Power and the government-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) today announced a partnership to install electric vehicle charging spots in HPCL gas stations and at other locations across the country. “A major impediment to electric vehicles adoption is the range anxiety which needs to be addressed through establishment of nationwide charging infrastructure,” said Rajnish Mehta, executive director for corporate strategy planning and business development at HPCL. “We believe that a robust network of charging stations is very critical for market acceptability of EVs [in India].”

Looking forward

There has been much speculation about what the pending confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court might mean to future climate-related cases decided by that august body. In Thursday’s emotional Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about an allegation of sexual misconduct in his teen years, Kavanaugh seemed to threaten Democrats with retaliation for the spectacle, which certainly could color his rulings on issues they care most about, such as curbing greenhouse gas emissions. “And as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around,” he said.

The 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) convenes next Monday through Friday in Incheon, South Korea, where attendees are expected to discuss the IPCC’s special report on holding global warming to 1.5°C. That report is scheduled for release at a live-streamed press conference on Monday, October 8.

An alliance of 19 countries “officially” launched the Carbon Neutrality Coalition in New York on Thursday, pledging to become carbon neutral by 2050. Look for a policy document to be released in November at the U.N. climate summit in Poland to explain how they plan to meet that pledge, although it is unlikely to contain the bold action U.N. Secretary António Guterres pleaded for this week in New York. “There are no silver bullets. So don’t expect our communication in November to say, ‘This is the way,'” said Christian Holzleitner, a senior European Commission official involved in the drafting.