Alarming Ice Research

MacArthur Foundation’s Weekly Climate Review from Sept. 21, 2018:

Move by oil giants stands out amid flurry of climate promises
The past seven days brought a flurry of promises for climate action as well as some artful dodging, but an announcement by U.S. oil giants may prove to be the most significant.

Billionaire climate hawk Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican, admitted on Sunday that he would consider a run for the U.S. presidency as a Democrat in 2020, but only after he spends $80 million to nudge the outcome of November’s midterms in favor of climate action.

At the same time, record rains from Hurricane Florence and the brute winds of Typhoon Mangkhut seemed timed to punctuate concerns of the estimated 4,500 participants from more than 100 nations who attended last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and witnessed hundreds of new commitments to curb climate change from mayors, governors, business leaders, philanthropists and others.

In honor of the California event, the United Nations launched a “revamped” Global Climate Action portal to keep track of the “action underway by cities, regions, companies and investors to achieve the collective goals of the Paris Agreement.”

On the summit’s final day, 29 philanthropists pledged a collective $4 billion to the cause over the next five years—”the largest-ever philanthropic investment focused on climate change mitigation,” according to a press release.

The event closed with host California Governor Jerry Brown announcing his state would launch its own satellite to search out the worst emitters of climate-warming gases. “With science still under attack and the climate threat growing, we’re launching our own damn satellite,” he said. “This groundbreaking initiative will help governments, businesses and landowners pinpoint—and stop—destructive emissions with unprecedented precision on a scale that’s never been done before.”

As floodwaters from Florence rose across parts of North and South Carolina, former Vice President Al Gore told POLITICO, “I think that there is a new participant in the discussion, and that’s Mother Nature. …[T]he increasing frequency and severity of these climate-related disasters almost every night on the news now is really driving further change that I think does give the issue great political significance.” Of course, that remains to be seen.

Furthermore, while 17 states have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance to cut greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, 18 still burn coal to generate the major share of their electricity supply, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data released during the California summit.

When G7 environment ministers convened on Wednesday for three days of discussion in Halifax, Canada, they bobbed and weaved about their 2015 vow to cut fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. A mostly mum Andrew Wheeler, acting director of the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) and head of the U.S. delegation, told The Canadian Press that the Trump administration continues to oppose the Paris Agreement and support coal use, while allegedly taking a “serious look” at the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The real head-turner came Thursday when ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum announced that, on Monday, they will become the first American oil majors to join the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), an oil industry response to climate change founded by 10 of their competitors in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The resulting group of 13 will represent 30 percent of the world’s oil and gas production, and the three new members will add an additional $300 million to the OGCI’s $1-billion investment fund for technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas.

“It will take the collective efforts of many in the energy industry and society to develop scalable, affordable solutions that will be needed to address the risks of climate change,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said in a statement. “Our mission is to supply energy for modern life and improve living standards around the world while minimizing impacts on the environment. This dual challenge is one of the most important issues facing society and our company.”

Although some environmental groups would prefer the OGCI focus on reducing use of fossil fuels rather than reducing carbon emissions from their use, the move sends a momentous vote of support for the Paris Agreement to the Trump administration and the world.

Climate context

Even if the world manages to hold global warming to 2°C above preindustrial times—as collectively pledged in the Paris Agreement—parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet could eventually melt enough to raise sea levels by 13 feet or far more, according to research published Wednesday in Nature. “This is the first time we’ve seen direct evidence of how this part of the ice sheet changed under fairly moderate warming in the geological past,” lead author David Wilson, an Earth scientist at Imperial College London, told Agence France Presse. A temperature rise of 2°C could lock in centuries of dramatic sea rise, he and his fellow researchers concluded.

The world is far closer than previously thought to “overshooting” its carbon emissions budget under the Paris Agreement, authors of a comprehensive new analysis of the planet’s thawing permafrost warned Monday in Nature Geoscience. They found that the thaw is nearing a “tipping point” at which the long-frozen earth would release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, triggering catastrophic climate change. “The scientific answer to ‘How soon are we likely to exceed our Paris target?’ is somewhere between 10 years ago and the next 20 years,” senior author Thomas Gasser, a research scholar at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, told The Independent. “We should have changed course a while ago, and we should now significantly increase our efforts to do so.” He also said, “we may never get back to safer levels of warming” if we blow past 2°C.

At this time, carbon pricing in the world’s major economies is too low to incentivize emissions cuts large enough to prevent calamitous climate change, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced on Tuesday. In an analysis of carbon prices in 42 OECD and G20 countries representing approximately 80 percent of global carbon emissions, the intergovernmental organization found average prices were 76.5 percent below what would be necessary to ensure climate security. “The gulf between today’s carbon prices and the actual cost of emissions to our planet is unacceptable,” said OECD Secretary General Ángel Gurría. “Pricing carbon correctly is a concrete and cost-effective way to slow climate change. We are wasting an opportunity to steer our economies along a low-carbon growth path and losing precious time with every day that passes.”


Tokyo-based international investor Marubeni Corporation surprised many observers Tuesday when it promised to cut its current coal-fired power holdings of about 3 gigawatts in half by 2030 to “fight” climate change. “As a general principle, Marubeni will no longer enter into any new coal-fired power generation business,” the company said in a statement. “In distancing itself from coal, Japan’s Marubeni Corp., one of the world’s largest developers of coal-fired power plants, is adding to global momentum away from traditional forms of electricity generation,” wrote Simon Nicholas, a Sydney-based energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “Other major Asian coal plant developers such as the Korean giants Posco and Kepco will be having intense boardroom discussions along these lines, and we expect to see other major Asian trading conglomerates follow Marubeni’s lead.”

In a surprise out of Australia, advocates of climate action launched a television ad featuring a farmer who actually calls out climate change by name and chastises the Australian government for backing away from fighting it. “This drought has really hit our family hard. Climate change is making the droughts more severe,” a woman who is a fourth-generation sheep and cattle farmer says. In the 30-second spot paid for by the Australian Conservation Foundation, she urges politicians to “stop dancing around the issue and help us” by sticking with the Paris Agreement and replacing coal-fired power with renewable energy.

Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott appeared surprised Monday when a planned stop for his U.S. Senate campaign at a Cuban restaurant was interrupted by protesters infuriated by the persistent red tide that has killed more than 100 tons of fish and washed up beloved sea turtles and manatees on stinking beaches now deserted by tourists. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Red-Tide Rick has got to go,” his detractors shouted, truncating his visit and confirming that climate-related issues are capturing the hearts and minds of at least some Florida voters.

United States

The juxtaposition of nature and policy could not have been more apt. The New York Times on Tuesday published a piece about a new climatic era dawning in North Carolina with Hurricane Florence—the same day the Trump administration essentially gutted an Obama-era regulation to curb super-warming methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal property.

“This is a complete dismantling of federal methane regulation in the United States,” said Matt Watson, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Energy Program—as the floodwaters from Florence continued to rise.

“When you have two 500-year floods within two years of each other, it’s pretty clear it’s not a 500-year flood,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said at a news conference this week. The flooding rains were actually a 1,000-year event, according to meteorologist Jason Samenow of The Washington Post. “Florence’s rainfall in North Carolina was the most for any tropical weather system north of Florida along the East Coast on record…,” he reported.

The New York Times reported Thursday that only around 335,000 of the millions of homes in the Carolinas threatened by flooding from Florence had flood insurance. “We’re talking about places in North Carolina where the coverage is less than 1 percent,” said Ray Lehmann, a member of SmarterSafer, a broad coalition of groups advocating flood insurance reform.

Ironically, the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) embraced Florence as a rationale for opening oil drilling in other U.S. coastal areas besides the Gulf of Mexico—places such as the southeast Atlantic coast, California’s Pacific coast and pristine offshore areas in Alaska. “What we’ve done is put all of our oil-and-natural-gas eggs into one basket,” NOIA President Randall Luthi told The Washington Post. “More drilling combined with more extreme weather and hurricanes is a predictable recipe for disaster,” countered Diane Hoskins, campaign director for offshore drilling at the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Oceana.


“China forges ahead in building green future,” a headline from the official Xinhua news agency declared today, following the close of this week’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2018—also known as “summer Davos”—in Tianjin. “China does not claim to be a leader, but it is, in fact, a leading force in green energy,” Xinhua quoted Lin Boqiang, head of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University, as saying.

“China’s leadership has been truly outstanding. I want to repeat the gratitude people around the world feel for China,” Xinhua quoted former U.S. Vice President Al Gore as saying in a Saturday roundup of last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. “It is significant that China is also the global leader in financing renewable energy.”

China sent a delegation of more than 120 government officials, business leaders and academics to the summit. “Just the fact that you are here, in such numbers, and [with] people of such importance and expertise, says volumes about the commitment of China to confronting climate change,” Governor Jerry Brown told China’s representatives during packed proceedings. Climate envoy Xie Zhenhua assured attendees that China would continue to play a leadership role in stemming climate change, regardless of the Trump administration’s machinations. “Climate cooperation has been a highlight of China-U.S. relations. Tensions on the national level do not prevent cooperation on the local level, which will benefit both countries,” he said.

But Greenpeace dropped a bit of rain on that copacetic parade today when it released an analysis of government data showing China’s carbon emissions rose by a “globally significant” 3 percent in the first half of 2018 over the same period last year—an amount equivalent of all Spain’s energy emissions. That follows a 2-percent rise in 2017, which came after several years of decreasing emissions. “What seems clear is that if the trend continues through the rest of 2018, as unfortunately seems increasingly likely, [then] 2018 emissions will exceed [what was thought to be the peak in] 2013,” saidGreenpeace energy analyst Lauri Myllyvirta.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a 10-percent import tariff on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods this week, after which China retaliated by placing a 10-percent tariff on $60 billion of imports from the U.S. including, significantly, liquefied natural gas (LNG). Experts warned that that 10 percent could effectively price American LNG suppliers out of the world’s largest market for their product, sending Chinese buyers to Australia, Qatar and Russia. “China has been able to find willing sellers closer to its own backyard,” said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at the oil industry analytics firm ClipperData.


Solar developers on Wednesday asked India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to slap a 50-percent tariff penalty on power distribution companies that refuse to buy clean energy under signed purchase agreements, the Press Trust of India reported.

The request came at a stakeholders meeting called by the MNRE to address the fact that lenders have become wary of financing renewable energy projects in India because of record-low tariffs, a new government cap on tariffs, a reinstated safeguard duty on imported solar components, continuing problems with delivery of clean power to consumers and the likelihood of upcoming bankruptcies in the coal-fired power sector. “…[B]anks do not want to stick their neck out,” said an industry source who asked for anonymity. The ministry reportedly is considering the developers’ penalty request.

Clean energy consultancy Mercom India Research predicts there will be a decrease in India’s solar installations in the second half of 2018, followed by a lackluster 2019. “Due to the uncertainty around the safeguard duty, auction activity in the first half of 2018 was weak, which means the large-scale project pipeline for 2019 again will be weak,” Mercom said in its forecast. Profitability of some projects has slumped significantly, according to Aviral Jain, a managing director at global financial adviser Duff and Phelps. “Some barely generate double-digit returns,” he said.

With regard to India’s aspirations for a large-scale transition to electric vehicles (EVs), a new survey by the Bengaluru-based nonprofit Climate Trends showed that around 87 percent of Indian drivers would buy an EV in order to reduce air pollution. The results also showed respondents were far more motivated to choose an EV by air pollution than by any cost savings from no longer needing gasoline or diesel.

Still, German carmaker Mercedes-Benz does not yet see a “viable business case” for selling EVs in India because of the government’s lack of related policies and incentives, Michael Jopp, vice president for sales and marketing for the company’s India division, said Thursday. “…[Q]uite frankly, an electric [vehicle] policy would help,” he said.

Looking forward

President Donald Trump will head to New York City for his second U.N. General Assembly meeting on Sunday. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this week that U.N. member nations “have tired of Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway act and are increasingly hitting the road—or looking to China to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. retreat.” Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicts “they will be nice to him in person, but will work to create broad coalitions to block or undermine a lot of the president’s initiatives because they think they are misguided.”

Climate Week NYC 2018 will be underway Monday through Sunday, addressing some of the same themes as last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and attracting some of the same, or at least similar, participants. Expect a barrage of new reports and more pledges for action.

Also in New York City next week, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines will hold hearings at the New York City Bar Association on Thursday and Friday in the commission’s ongoing investigation of whether 47 cement, mining and fossil fuel giants perpetrated human rights abuses through business practices that accelerated climate change.The petition that prompted the investigation gave as an example 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, which washed away entire communities in the Philippines and killed more than 6,300 people.