Alarm over climate change escalates on multiple fronts

MacArthur Foundation’s Weekly Climate Review Feb. 22, 2019:

For years, advocates of climate action have tempered their growing alarm for fear of distressing the public and/or being accused of scaremongering.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump and his ilk made astonishing headway through scaremongering. And now the world’s youngest climate activists, including the influential U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, show no reticence in calling out potential doom.

“The age of climate panic is here. It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable,” wrote David Wallace-Wells, author The Uninhabitable Earth, in a Sunday New York Times op-ed. “It’s worse, much worse, than you think,” begins the newly released book by the deputy editor of New York magazine. The solution he recommends sounds like a page from Trump’s playbook: using fear to shake humanity from its collective passivity. Instilling fear is “warranted and perhaps past due.”

“I would like people to be scared of what is possible because I’m scared,” Wallace-Wells told the Guardian. “…[W]e have burned more fossil fuels since the U.N. established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change than in all of the centuries before. So we have done more damage knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. That is a horrifying fact. It also means we are engineering our own devastation practically in real time.”

The European Union nibbled around the edges of freaking out in diplomatic speak Monday in a plea for the world to commit, by September 23 at a special U.N. climate summit in New York, to the unprecedented action necessary to avert global climatic upheaval. “Climate change is a direct and existential threat, which will spare no country,” reads the careful wording. “The world is already witnessing multiple devastating impacts of climate change, yet action to stem it remains insufficient. The European Union is, therefore, determined to help raise global ambition and lead the way on accelerated climate action on all fronts and recognizes the severe implications that climate change poses to international security and stability.”

The Planetary Security Conference 2019, held this week in the Netherlands, announced the creation of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, a network of senior military leaders across the world meant to drive policies to urgently address security risks from climate change. “It is time for a new epoch in strategic thought and defense planning…,” said retired U.S. Navy Captain Steve Brock, chief of staff to the new council’s secretary general and executive director. “We’re out of time. We have to act now,” said Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

“Are Republicans wavering on climate change?” asked a headline in today’s Houston Chronicle. The largest newspaper in what is sometimes called the “oil capital of the world” noted “the change in tone” among Republicans at a recent climate hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “Everyone was saying this is real, it’s human-caused by industrial activity, and we need to get on board finding a solution,” said Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative group advocating “cleaner” energy. “It’s a pretty significant evolution of the conversation.”

All of the above appear to be triggering panic among climate change deniers in Washington, D.C.

In response to the consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies that climate change is a present and growing national security threat, the White House is considering forming the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, The Washington Post reported. The proposed 12-member body would be charged with “a rigorous independent and adversarial scientific peer review to examine the certainties and uncertainties of climate science,” according to a Trump administration document seen by reporters. The effort would be “spearheaded,” the Post said, by National Security Council Senior Director William Harper, a retired Princeton physicist who insists carbon dioxide emissions are not pollutants. “This is the equivalent of setting up a committee on nuclear weapons proliferation and having someone lead it who doesn’t think nuclear weapons exist,” said Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan group of senior retired military and national security leaders. “It’s honestly a blunt force political tool designed to shut the national security community up on climate change.”

Here, in the words of author David Wallace-Wells, is the good news for those unnerved by the rapid, in-your-face progression of climate change and the continuing efforts by Team Trump to dismiss it as fake news. “…[W]hile not a single direct question about climate change was asked of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential debates, the issue is sure to dominate the Democratic primary in 2020… .”

Climate context

Now, in less than a minute, any sighted person can see global warming unfold from 1900 to the present day and beyond, thanks to a sobering new video illustration produced by a scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Curbing that progression, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, looks highly unlikely due to the world dragging its feet on altering land use, according to a study published Monday in Nature Climate Change. “In most cases, little progress has been made, [and] often the situation has actually worsened in the last three years. Many of the plans for mitigation in the land system were unrealistic in the first place and now threaten to make the Paris target itself unachievable,” saidlead author Calum Brown, an atmospheric scientist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. “Ongoing destruction of tropical forests in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia is particularly concerning because these forests store huge quantities of carbon…,” said co-author Mark Rounsevell, a professor of land use change at the institute. “Attempts to protect these forests have had limited success, and laws against felling [them] have recently been rolled back.”

New research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienceslinks climate change to an increase in lingering smoggy heat waves punctuated by violent thunderstorms during summer months in urban areas across North America, Europe and Asia. “Summertime weather isn’t ventilating American cities at the rate that it did in the past,” lead author Charles Gertler, an MIT PhD candidate, told Bloomberg News.

Marking a major milestone with little ado, the government of Australia confirmed Monday that a rodent found only on tiny Bramble Cay in the Great Barrier Reef is probably the first mammal driven to extinction by human-caused climate change. “The Bramble Cay melomys was a little brown rat,” said Tim Beshara, federal policy director at The Wilderness Society Australia. “But it was our little brown rat, and it was our responsibility to make sure it persisted. And we failed.”


In a headline-grabbing surprise, multinational coal giant Glencore announced Wednesday that it would cap its coal production and work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg attributed the move to negotiations with investors concerned about climate change. “We have found a resolution where both parties are happy, it makes sense, we think we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

In a related surprise, fellow coal miners in Australia sounded more disgruntled than climate hawks over Glencore’s incremental plan. “This move protects their existing coal investments and satisfies the greenies. It’s a pretty clever move,” a miner who asked for anonymity told The Sydney Morning Herald. Other industry experts pointed to profit-driven motives. “…[C]apping coal production is significant because prices could remain high amid tighter supplies. Glencore is chasing value over volume,” said Prakash Sharma, research director for global coal markets at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

South Africa’s parliament surprised the world Tuesday by finally approving long-promised legislation imposing a tax on industrial carbon emissions. The next day, Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni confirmed the restructuring of Eskom, the government-owned utility that operates most of the country’s coal-fired power fleet. “Climate change is real,” Mboweni said. “The steps being undertaken at Eskom will allow us to expand renewable energy, and the carbon tax will come into effect from 1 June 2019.”

The European Parliament also surprised observers Tuesday when one of its committees endorsed negotiating two trade deals with the United States despite the Trump administration’s refusal to adhere to the Paris Agreement. The European Union pledged last July to “make ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement a condition for future trade agreements”—a promise kept in recent trade pacts with Japan and Mexico. The full parliament will vote on the committee’s recommendation in March.

In surprising claims, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimki suggested that Russia spurred recent climate protests by school children in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who inspired the movement from Sweden, scoffed at their conspiracy theories. “They are desperate to remove the focus from the climate crisis and change the subject,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it because they know they can’t win this fight.”

United States

As lawsuits over Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to finagle money for a border wall multiplied, presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, told late night comedian James Corden she would use that power to declare a national emergency on climate change if she were elected president in 2020.

Shortly after Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act last Friday, Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, announced plans for a House resolution declaring climate change a national emergency. “If Donald Trump wants to start declaring national emergencies for fake crises, Congress should start to address the real ones, starting with climate change,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues. Before that, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to call for a vote next Tuesday on a resolution to reject Trump’s declaration.

The Green New Deal remained in the headlines this week. The HuffPost reported that while the advocacy group Oil Change International found that 12 U.S. senators supporting the Green New Deal resolution had accepted nearly $1.1 million from fossil fuel companies, 88 senators who eschewed support took in nearly $59 million. On average, non-supporters took in nearly seven times as much as supporters.

Meanwhile, lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff, who served four years in federal prison for scamming Native American tribes out of millions of dollars, is seeking funds for the Protect American Values PAC aimed at disparaging supporters of the Green New Deal, E&E News reported. “[Representative] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t even in diapers when I started fighting the Left, and I’m about to teach her and her cronies a few things they are going to wish they never learned—and it won’t just be a math lesson,” he wrote in an appeal letter.

Democrats on Thursday launched the Act Now on Climate PAC in support of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is contemplating a presidential bid centered on the need for urgent climate action. “We hope Jay Inslee runs, because he has been the leading champion of solving climate change in the Democratic Party,” said Corey Platt, former political director of the Democratic Governors Association and now senior advisor to the new PAC. “If he doesn’t, we will continue to work to make sure Democratic presidential candidates make this issue the priority.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a declared candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced she would reintroduce the Climate Change Education Act, which was first introduced by Senator Ed Markey in 2016. The measure “would help equip our schools with the tools they need to help students understand the science behind climate change and help them become a part of the solution to this global threat,” she said. At the same time, several states—including Maine, Montana, South Dakota and Virginia—have introduced bills to block science-based climate curriculum from their public schools.

Negotiations between California and the Trump administration over fuel efficiency standards are over, both sides admitted this week. “It would be fair to say the negotiations never really began in the first place,” Stanley Young, a member of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), told the Los Angeles Times. “The administration broke off communications before Christmas and never responded to our suggested areas of compromise—or offered any compromise proposal at all,” he said in an email to Bloomberg News.

“Despite the administration’s best efforts to reach a common-sense solution, it is time to acknowledge that CARB has failed to put forward a productive alternative” to the reduced efficiency requirements proposed by federal agencies for cars and light trucks, the White House said in a statement. “Accordingly, the administration is moving forward to finalize a rule later this year… .” While California has the legal right to set tougher standards, which a number of states follow, the Trump administration has said it would like to take away that right.

In another blow to the Trump administration’s push for a bailout of uneconomic coal-fired and nuclear power plants, the CEO of PJM Interconnnection, which delivers electricity to 13 states and the District of Columbia, told Bloomberg Television that the scheduled retirement of some 18,000 megawatts of coal and nuclear plants poses no threat to the reliability of U.S. power supplies. “We could sustain, essentially, in the 30,000-megawatt range,” Andy Ott said in an interview. “If it gets beyond that, then we start to look at the alternatives for firming up resources.”

On the climate litigation front, a federal judge in Pennsylvania on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Clean Air Council on behalf of two asthmatic boys against the Trump administration for hurting their health and denying their constitutional rights by weakening national climate regulations. U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond ruled that neither the boys nor the environmental group had standing, that “much of the challenged conduct does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions” and that the judiciary should not set national climate policy. He also took issue with U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Oregon for ruling in 2016 that “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

The Clean Air Council said it was considering next steps. “We are troubled that the opinion states the federal government ‘do[es] not produce greenhouse gases’ and that ‘climate change is the creation of those that pollute the air, not the government,'” said Joseph Otis Minott, the group’s executive director and chief counsel. “These statements are both irrelevant to our claims and factually incorrect.”

With regard to the still-pending lawsuit brought by 21 Oregon youth in 2015, ​the youth climate group Zero Hour launched a campaign Saturday seeking young people to add their names to a “friend of the court” brief asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the case. As of Wednesday, more than 6,000 had signed onClimate Liability News reported.


Beijing’s municipal government announced Wednesday that the capital “will keep improving air quality,” without saying how much or by when, which Reuters interpreted as further evidence “suggesting the country’s air-pollution campaign is stalling as the easily attainable measures have already been taken.”

China is definitely “backsliding” in its proclaimed “war on pollution,” the independent Beijing-based news site Caixin Global reported Tuesday, citing Ministry of Ecology and Environment data showing smog had increased in 337 Chinese cities in January. Beijing saw nearly a 53-percent rise in lung-damaging PM2.5 particulates last month as compared to January 2018, it said.

Perhaps in response to rising pollution, China’s central government indicated it may pull back on its decision last June to abruptly stop subsidies for solar power projects, according to reports on social media from the China Photovoltaic Industry Association. The 2018 move slowed China’s build-out of renewable energy and flooded world markets with significantly discounted Chinese-made solar components.

The most intriguing energy-related news out of China this week concerned the country’s intention to lead the world in rocketing power stations more than 22,000 above Earth to beam back an abundance of uninterrupted solar power 24/7. The state-run Science and Technology Daily reported Chinese scientists are building a prototype orbiter in Chongqing, hoping to surpass similar efforts underway in Europe, Japan, India and the United States.


“India’s outdated coal power plants risk numerous lives and contribute massively to global warming,” declared a headline in today’s India Times.

The accompanying article summarized a study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) that found India’s coal-fired power fleet is the most polluting on the planet, even though China and the United States produce more coal power. That’s because coal plants in India—and also Eastern Europe and Russia—tend to burn poorer quality coal and release more pollutants than plants in China, Western Europe and North America. “More than half of the [negative] health effects can be traced back to just one-tenth of the power plants,” said lead author Christopher Oberschelp, a PhD candidate in ecological systems design at ETH Zurich. “These power plants should be upgraded or shut down as quickly as possible.”

India’s power consumption is on track to double by 2040, but coal is no longer a shoe-in to fill the lion’s share of that outsized need, Reuters Asia energy columnist Clyde Russell wrote in an analysis this week. “[T]he main reason coal may battle to fuel India’s future energy needs is that it’s simply becoming too expensive relative to renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar,” Russell concluded. “The government’s National Electricity Plan assumes that 94 GW [gigawatts] of new coal-fired capacity will be added between the 2017/18 and the 2026/27 fiscal years. But with only 22 GW currently permitted, the pipeline of new plants would appear to be considerably lower than what the government is forecasting. … A further issue for India’s coal sector is that banks are becoming reluctant to lend to new ventures, and insurers are also becoming less keen to offer cover.” Still, he cautioned, “Coal won’t disappear in India, with the existing fleet likely to generate power for at least two more decades.”

Despite the depressed outlook for coal in India, the Gujarat-based Adani conglomerate continues to fight for the right to develop a coal mine in Australia meant to supply power plants back home. Australia’s ABC News reported Monday that Adani had hired an Australian law firm that touted itself as “a trained attack dog” willing to “take the gloves off” in fighting opposition to the long-delayed project in the state of Queensland. The firm promised to work “with police and a criminal lawyer to ensure appropriate police action is taken against protesters.”

Looking forward

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised the U.S. Senate will vote as early as next week on the proposed resolution calling for a Green New Deal, which continues to impassion rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

“This idea is about socialism. That’s what this is. Look at it. Read it. And it’s important that we tell the American people what it is,” said Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado. “[It’s important] to get people on record as to how much they really want to take this country in a hard-left direction,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming.

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, claimed to remain puzzled over the Green New Deal, even after reading the resolution twice and seeking insights from Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat proposing the it with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. But Durbin was all for McConnell bringing the matter to a vote so senators could lay their climate cards on the table. “What we’re going to do is ask the Republican leader, ‘What’s your position on global warming, while we’re at it? Shouldn’t you come out on the record and tell us whether you believe that human activity is having an impact on our environment?'” Durbin said. “Let’s get on the record on both sides.”

Also watch for conservative blowback about a reportreleased by environmental groups Wednesday highlighting the climate damage caused by Americans’ excessive use of toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels. The research documents how the softest of these products contain fibers obtained by destroying invaluable old-growth forests. And, of course, America uses more TP per capita than any other nation. Given the degree to which Americans balk at giving up gas-thirsty pickup trucks and SUVs, one can only imagine how some will react to any hint of restricting their use of Charmin.