Weekly Climate Review Dec. 14, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump prides himself in smashing norms, and that’s just what his administration and their co-conspirators did last Saturday night at the global climate talks in Poland.
In an astonishing move, the United States joined fellow petro powers Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in rejecting a motion to “welcome” the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that concluded the world must dramatically decarbonize by 2050 to prevent runaway climatic upheaval across the globe. Rather, they said, the findings should only be “noted.” In U.N. speak, the latter is tantamount to dismissing the landmark report as superfluous.
The European Union, the 47-nation Least Developed Countries negotiating bloc and numerous African and South American nations voiced their embrace of the report and the need for bolder climate action than the world has committed to so far under the Paris Agreement. “There are 196 countries in the U.N., and 192 counties agree,” said Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, who is now his country’s top climate negotiator. “We are just talking about four that do not agree, and these four are taking us hostage.”
In retrospect, the foursome’s IPCC ambush probably should not have come as such an outrageous surprise to the 30,000 delegates and observers in Katowice.
Russia is one of only a few countries that have not yet ratified the Paris Agreement. Although Russian officials have claimed the country will ratify in 2020, President Vladimir Putin has been squirrelly about human-caused climate change. “We are really witnessing global warming. The reasons, however, remain obscure because there’s been no answer on so-called anthropogenic emissions,” he said at Russian Energy Week in October.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—which ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016—made much ado about his aim to transform the kingdom into a major exporter of renewable energy as it shifts to a lower-carbon economy. Since then, however, he has become close to the Trump administration, which continues to back him despite his apparent involvement in the widely condemned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The country’s former lead climate negotiator tweeted Monday that supporters of the IPCC report were “either brainwashed or part of the climate mafia.”
Kuwait ratified the Paris Agreement in April, but it is estimated to hold 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, which provide about 90 percent of the government’s revenues.
“Saudi Arabia has always had bad behavior in climate talks, but it could be overruled when it was alone or just with Kuwait. That it has now been joined by the U.S. and Russia is much more dangerous,” said Alden Meyer, a veteran of global climate talks and director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Whether you ‘welcome’ or ‘note’ or shamefully ignore the science altogether, the fact remains that [climate change] is catastrophic for humanity, and party negotiators blocking meaningful progress should have much on their conscience,” Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said when it was his turn at the podium.
As the week progressed, some nations began to despair. “For the vulnerable countries, there is a sense that we are the ants trying to move the elephants,” said Renato Constantino, an advisor to the most climate-vulnerable countries. “After a quarter of a century of [U.N. climate] negotiations and three years since the historic Paris Agreement, we are further from approaching our goal of stabilizing emissions than ever, and… rapidly approaching the point of no return,” said the Maldives’ environment minister, Hussain Rasheed Hassan, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island Developing States.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres flew back to Poland Wednesday to try to salvage momentum for producing rules for implementing the Paris Agreement and monitoring countries’ progress. “We’re running out of time,” Guterres told the weary, angry and disheartened negotiators. “To waste this opportunity would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change. It would not only be immoral; it would be suicidal. … This may sound like a dramatic appeal, but it is exactly this: a dramatic appeal.”
Guterres reportedly called President Xi Jinping to enlist his help in getting the meeting back on track, which Xi apparently agreed to do.
In a press conference on Thursday called by China, India, Brazil and South Africa, China’s chief climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, accused unnamed countries of “backsliding” and insisted that “the principles and provisions mentioned in the Paris Agreement must not be compromised.” When asked to elaborate on who was backsliding and how, Xie said, “We can all evaluate what backsliding is and what is not. We all know what is going forward and what means going backward.”
In addition, the state-owned China Global Television Network(CGTN) released a story Thursday stating Beijing’s unequivocal support for the IPCC’s findings, the Paris Agreement and the climate summit’s agenda. “With barely 24 hours left to reach a consensus at the ongoing climate change summit in Poland, four big oil-and-gas manufacturing countries have expressed their disagreement. Amidst looming uncertainty, China again reiterated its commitment to honor the climate deal,” CGTN reported. “Addressing delegates at the summit, Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Representative on Climate Change said [China] will keep supporting multilateralism and firmly adhere to the path of green and low-carbon development. ‘China will fulfill its commitment 100 percent,’ he said.”
The talks are now slated to extend through the weekend rather than closing today as scheduled. Expectations for the final outcome sounded modest. “It was never going to be great, not least because the U.S. is playing a laggard role, but I think we can get a decent outcome, if it’s framed in the right way,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.Climate context
“Nobody, even the so-called superpowers, can negotiate with the laws of physics,” Belgian climatologist Jean-Pascal Ypersele, a former deputy chair of the IPCC, said after the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait went rogue in Katowice. And this week’s science news handily supported his claim.
A study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that humans “are effectively rewinding the climate clock by approximately 50 [million years], reversing a multi-million year cooling trend in less than two centuries.”
“If all governments achieved their Paris Agreement commitments, the world will likely warm 3.0°C—twice the 1.5°C limit they agreed in Paris,” according to an annual update released Tuesday by Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by three research organizations since 2009. “Little to no progress has been detected globally on climate action…, with the total global effect of currently-implemented policies in countries expected to lead to warming of 3.3˚C by 2100.” In other words, probable catastrophe.
Droughts in the United States and East Africa; floods in South America, East Asia and South Asia; terrestrial heat waves in China and the Mediterranean; and ocean heat waves off Australia “were all made more likely by human-caused climate change,” the American Meteorological Society foundin a new analysis released on Monday. “These attribution studies are telling us that a warming Earth is continuing to send us new and more extreme weather events every year,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, editor in chief of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. “The message of this science is that our civilization is increasingly out of sync with our changing climate.”
The Arctic is in the midst of a span of warming years “that is unlike any period on record,” according to the 2018 Arctic Report Card, released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. “The Arctic is an indication of what’s coming to the rest of the globe,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “In the Arctic Ocean, a difference of 2 degrees can be huge. If it goes from 31 Fahrenheit to 33 Fahrenheit, you’re going from ice skating to swimming.”
Furthermore, melting of permafrost will put 70 percent of existing infrastructure in the Arctic at risk over the next 30 years, a new study published Tuesday in Nature Communications warned. “Much more needs to be done to prepare Alaska and Alaskans for the adverse consequences of coming changes in permafrost and climate,” said co-author Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute.Surprises
Only four national leaders—the president of Kiribati and the prime ministers of Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tuvalu—showed up in Poland on Tuesday for the “high-level” portion of this year’s critical global climate summit on implementation of the Paris Agreement. That marked a surprising contrast to 2015, when at least 80 world leaders, including then-U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attended in order to be a part of creating the historic agreement.
In stark contrast to Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro—a climate-change doubter set to be sworn in on January 1—the country’s current environment Minister Edson Duarte took a surprisingly tough stance on climate change in Katowice. “The clock is ticking. While we spend time debating texts and demanding their implementation, the planet outside is deteriorating. Species are becoming extinct. Habitats disappearing. Emissions piling up,” Duarte said. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro once again put his support for the Paris Agreement in question in a Facebook Live broadcast on Wednesday.
In a surprising business-as-usual move, Democrats in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday named coal-industry advocate Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to be their party’s ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, despite doubts expressed last week about his bona fides. “West Virginia is a leading energy producer and major contributor to advanced energy technologies, and I intend to ensure this progress is continued,” Manchin said in a statement. “The problems facing our country are serious, and I am committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find common-sense solutions for long-term comprehensive energy policy that incorporates an all-of-the-above strategy and ensures our state and our nation are leaders in the energy future.” He made no mention of climate change.United States
While state and local government officials who support the Paris Agreement attended the global climate summit this week and last, the provocative behavior of the Trump administration in Katowice grabbed most of the headlines.
“The reality is that countries will continue to use fossil fuels,” Wells Griffith, the administration’s point person on international energy issues, told participants in Monday’s official U.S. side event promoting fossil fuel use. “We’re here at the [conference] today to share our balanced approach to economic growth and environmental protection. … The United States is now the No. 1 combined oil-and-gas producer in the world. All energy sources are important, and they will be used unapologetically.”
The panel discussion was soon interrupted by protesters shouting, “Shame on you!” and “Keep it in the ground!”
“The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” Griffith said in retort. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”
“It’s so ridiculous; it’s a joke,” said protester Vic Barrett, 19, a Wisconsin coed who joined her counterparts in laughing at Griffith’s response. “We’re done listening to false solutions and things we know don’t work.” Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which promotes “new energy” solutions in America’s coal country, was one of several protesters who read statements. “There is no such thing as clean coal,” she said. “Coal is deadly from the beginning to the end. They talk about the life cycle of coal; I talk about it as a death march. My father died of black lung, and I am in this struggle with others whose fathers and husbands are dying of black lung right now.”
Australia was the only country other than the United States represented on the pro-hydrocarbon panel.
In a Fox News interview on Thursday, President Trump defended his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement—which can’t happen until just after the next presidential election in 2020—by pointing to the violent protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s short-lived carbon tax on gasoline and diesel. “The Paris accord is not working out too well for Paris. Because of that accord, the whole country is burning down,” Trump said.
Timothy Gallaudet, the acting head of NOAA—the go-to federal agency on climate change—said this week that he had never briefed Trump on the matter. Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist who headed NOAA during four years of the previous administration, said President Barack Obama discussed climate change with her every two or three months. “There is no sign that President Trump is interested in input from anybody on the scientific facts around climate change,” said John Holdren, Obama’s former chief science advisor who now teaches environmental policy at Harvard. “And his uninformed rejection of those facts—reflected in his administration’s misguided policies on coal, offshore drilling, automotive fuel economy, clean-energy R&D, the Paris Agreement and assistance to developing countries on climate-change mitigation and adaptation—is doing immense damage to the prospects for averting a wholly unmanageable degree of global climate change.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, oil-refining giant Marathon Petroleum and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group focused on influencing state policies, backed “covert” campaigns to shore up support for the Trump administration’s rollback of fuel efficiency standards for cars, SUVs and light trucks. “It appears as though oil interests are cynically trying to gin up support in Congress for the weakest possible standards to ensure that cars and SUVs have to rely on even more oil,” said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.
Meanwhile, a report released Thursday by the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie blamed Trump’s 30-percent tariff on imported solar panels for this year’s 30-percent drop in growth of utility-scale solar power capacity in the United States. “If not for the tariffs, the U.S. solar market would undoubtedly look better today than it does now,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which commissioned the research.
In contrast, a record eleven companies bid Thursday for the opportunity to install wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts. “The unprecedented interest in today’s sale demonstrates that not only has offshore wind arrived in the U.S., but it is set to soar,” said Randall Luthi, head of the National Ocean Industries Association. The auction by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was scheduled to continue into today, possibly attracting additional bids.
Up on Capitol Hill, hundreds of young protesters in the Sunrise Movement—formed to build “an army of young people to stop climate change”—converged on the offices of three House Democratic leaders Monday to demand urgent climate action. Police arrested more than 100 of them for blocking hallways during the sit-in aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who is expected to chair the House Committee on Rules—the “traffic cop” for bills reaching the floor. “We are here to call on Democratic politicians that we know are with us, who understand the climate science, to back up their words with action and support this select committee for a Green New Deal,” said Varshini Prakash, founder of the movement.
On the coal front, a U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday upheld Washington state’s decision to block construction of a coal export terminal in the town of Longview over concerns about impacts on water quality. Millennium Bulk Terminals proposed the facility in 2012 for the purpose of shipping tens of millions of tons of Rocky Mountain coal to Asia.China
China’s official news media said little about the global climate summit in Poland until this week.
The China Global Television Network, known as CGTN, published a stinging “opinion” piece Tuesday skewering Donald Trump and his minions in Katowice, under the headline, “U.S. must abandon absurd ‘clean coal’ advocacy and learn from China.”
“As world leaders gather in Poland to hash out a rule book for preventing global warming, Washington’s jaw-dropping advocacy of ‘clean coal’ at the side event has immediately become a target of international criticism,” said the commentary attributed to Liu Jianxi, a CGTN opinion editor. “The coal event, which was supposed to ‘showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as the use of emission-free nuclear energy’ was instantly mocked by the public as a dirty lie.
“It’s not the first time that the U.S. under Donald Trump has astounded the world with its impudent and capricious acts. Earlier, Trump withdrew the country from the Paris climate accord, arguing that the carbon-limiting deal ‘disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefits of other countries.’ … Under the cloak of ‘American interests,’ Trump is pushing the United States back into pollutants. The president is seeking personal political gain at the [cost] of the American people’s interests. From withdrawing [from] the Paris climate deal to advocating ‘clean coal,’ Trump’s erratic behavior will only undermine the credibility of the United States and drag the country down.
“The significance of combating global warming cannot be exaggerated. Nations around the world are on the same side. It is high time that the Trump administration wake up from geopolitical calculations and work jointly with the international community on the climate issue.”
Through much of the two-week summit, China insisted that it be considered a developing country, with flexibility on transparency in reporting progress and an exemption from anteing up part of the $100 billion per year promised by developed countries to help poorer countries pay for climate action. However, after the U.N. Secretary General reportedly sought President Xi Jinping’s help to a breakdown in negotiations, China’s delegation agreed to uniform rules for all parties. “We need to avoid straying from the principles and spirit of the Paris Agreement,” lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua told reporters.
Observers waxed hot and cold on China’s climate leadership.
“We live in a world in which global mistrust of China is widespread, and with ample reason: the military buildup in the South China Sea, the mass internment of Uighurs, human rights abuses, the disregard for intellectual property rights and more,” Daniel Gardner, a Smith College professor of history, wrote Monday in a New York Times op-ed. “But that mistrust shouldn’t blind us to the reality that in fighting climate change, the nations of the world are on the same side. We should cheer China on whenever it takes steps to reduce carbon emissions—especially as the Trump administration sits by idly.”
On Wednesday, the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation released a provocative paper arguing that China has made a “U-turn” on climate change since its milestone kumbaya moment with the United States to bring home the Paris Agreement in 2015. “The Chinese have spent a lot of money on renewables without results on anything like the scale required,” said the paper’s author Patricia Adams, executive director of Probe International, a foreign policy watchdog based in Ontario, Canada. “So despite their continuing outward support for the green agenda, China is actually going all out for fossil fuels. The Communist Party’s grip on power depends on it.”
Back in Beijing, the National Development and Reform Commission released a plan to beef up and standardize the country’s infrastructure for charging what the government calls “new energy vehicles” (NEVs). “NEVs are gaining popularity in China, the world’s largest auto market, thanks to a string of supportive policies,” the state-run China News Service reported on Tuesday.India
India made a stand in Poland on Wednesday with an official statement that said the Paris Agreement could not be renegotiated and that there could be no compromise on rich countries’ promise to give poorer countries technological and financial assistance to fight climate change.
The Indian government also “welcomed” the IPCC report that the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait tried to shove aside. “The report enjoins upon us to collectively address the issues of climate change with the urgency that it deserves,” said the statement from the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which was read by a member of the Indian delegation.
Meanwhile, air pollution in India’s capital hovered in the danger zone, and Indian travel specialists reported that tourist visits were down around 30 percent as a result. “The deteriorating air quality in India—especially in Delhi—has affected the influx of travelers from all around the world, impacting both hotel and flight bookings,” said Sharat Dhall, COO of Yatra.com, an online travel agency. “Many travelers have complained about the deteriorating air quality, which has led them to cut their trips short.”
The Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) recently called a meeting to discuss the problem. “Delhi is one of the world’s favorite travel destinations. On an average, a foreign tourist spends three [to] four nights in Delhi. But at present, they are either not coming to Delhi or spending just one night here,” said Rajan Sehgal, head of public relations for TAAI. He said the association would ask the Ministry of Tourism to take up the matter with the responsible ministries.
“…[I]t’s unfortunate that the Ministry of Power and coal power companies are refusing to implement the rules and hiding behind false technical details,” Sunil Dahiya, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace India, said in releasing a new report that shows some 76,000 premature deaths could have been avoided if coal-fired power plants in India had implemented government emissions standards as scheduled. “They should understand India is facing a public health crisis due to air pollution, and emission[s] from coal power plants are a big part of that crisis. India should accelerate implementation of the emission standards and stop any new investment [in] coal and move aggressively towards renewable energy sources, which are not just environment friendly but are overall sustainable and cheaper than polluting coal.”
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Energy (MNRE) told Parliament Thursday that it would not install 12 gigawatts of the 15 gigawatts of solar power slated for the state-owned utility NTPC Limited. The plan had called for bundling solar power with less expensive coal-fired power to make renewable energy more attractive, but solar power quickly dropped to record-low prices, making it less expensive than power generated from coal.
India added more than 1.5 gigawatts of rooftop solar from September 2017 to September 2018, marking a 75-percent rise in capacity, according to new research from Bridge to India. “[The] ongoing fall in [solar] module prices should continue to drive growth in the next few years,” said Vinay Rustagi, managing director of the energy consultancy. “Rooftop solar has huge growth potential and should be given more policy support, particularly when utility-scale solar is increasingly facing acute land and transmission connectivity challenges.”
Despite recent hiccups for large-scale solar, the MNRE said it plans to auction 60 gigawatts of solar power development over the next two years in order to reach the country’s goal of installing 100 gigawatts by 2022, PV-Tech reported.Looking forward
“Delivering a successful outcome in Katowice is like solving a three-dimensional jigsaw. It has three parts: the Paris rule book, finance for poor countries and renewed emissions reductions,” Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid’s international climate lead, said this week. “Like an African stool, it doesn’t work if one of the legs is missing.”
Watch for final developments over the weekend to see how many “legs” the “stool” ends up with. Grenada, Ethiopia and the Maldives were so displeased today that they called a press conference to express their frustration. “We are deeply unhappy with the way these talks are going. We are, therefore, rebelling against [our potential] extinction and, if necessary, we will rebel against the negotiations,” said Maldives chief negotiator Mohamed Nasheed. “Until the last minute, we will fight for the right outcome—to increase ambition and have a strong rule book in place,” said Gebru Jember Endalew, representing the Least Developed Countries.
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, complained that the U.S. delegation was “completely out of step” and standing “in the way of the rest of the world.”
The climate summit is expected to adjourn no later than Sunday, but the lame-duck U.S. Congress is scheduled to stay in session through next week to work toward a budget compromise.
In a letter dated Thursday, 96 Democrats in the House of Representatives asked President Trump to act on climate change. “We write to convey our grave concern that time is running out for the United States to work to reverse and mitigate the worst effects of a warming climate,” they wrote. “Rather than ignoring the important findings of the [National Climate Assessment], we request that you reconsider maintaining the nation’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and fully implement and enforce the Clean Power Plan, fuel economy standards, methane emission controls and safeguards for clean air and clean water.” Their entreaty could have been a nod to the tough situation in Katowice or a signal about what’s to come when the new Congress convenes in January. Maybe both.
“What’s the sleeper issue of the new political cycle? Here’s a good bet: It will be climate change,” senior Wall Street Journal political columnist Gerald Seth wrote on Monday.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon is one of a growing number of Democrats warming to the idea of a Green New Deal, according to The Washington Post. “We absolutely have to make sure this is part of the conversation going into 2020,” he said. “Mother Nature is sending this message… .”