World struggles to negotiate uncharted climatic and political territory

Weekly Climate Review from the MacArthur Foundation Dec. 21, 2018

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children,” 15-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden said, speaking Sunday at the close of the global climate summit in Poland on behalf of the activist network Climate Justice Now. “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Indeed, the world did show over the prior two weeks that it was not “mature” enough to broker wholesale decarbonization of the global economy by 2050, as deemed essential to avert climate catastrophe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Maturity requires experience, and humanity just doesn’t have much experience with planetary-scale makeovers. Furthermore, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is as bureaucratic and lumbering as its name. So, the fact that the UNFCCC’s 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) ended with unanimously agreed rules for implementing the Paris Agreement could be seen as a minor miracle.

After two days of toiling in overtime, wrung-out negotiators ended up leaving some of the most contentious matters until next year’s summit in Chile. But they chalked up a major victory when China, after years of resistance, agreed that all countries would have the same requirements to report progress on their climate actions every two years and allow a team of experts to verify those results. However, the negotiators failed to resolve the supremely vexing issue of the $10 billion in annual climate aid promised to developing countries by developed countries starting in 2020—an alleged deal-breaker for many poor nations.

Reactions to the final outcome in Katowice ranged from contempt to relief to tepid optimism.

“This rule book is completely insufficient to drive ambitious climate action,” said Chandra Bhushan, the deputy director general of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy group. “The Katowice COP will be remembered as an anti-science COP for its failure to take into account the findings of the IPCC’s special report… . It will also be remembered for coming out with a rule book that dilutes an already weak Paris Agreement, thereby undermining the global effort to combat climate change.”

“…[M]any climate soothsayers predicted disastrous ends following resistance from major oil-exporting countries like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and opposition from Brazil’s new president [Jair] Bolsonaro. However, major powers like China, India, the E.U. and Africa played a decisive role in keeping the efforts alive. This is not to ignore the considerable pressure generated by small and vulnerable island nations and civil society groups as well,” wrote Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “In short, the Katowice climate summit has proven to be a victory for multilateralism.”

“The majority of the rule book for the Paris Agreement has been created, which is something to be thankful for,” saidMohamed Adow, international climate lead for Christian Aid, a London-based development organization. “But the fact countries had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line shows that some nations have not woken up to the urgent call of the IPCC report… .”

“Particularly given the broader geopolitical context, this is a pretty solid outcome,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a U.S. think tank, referring to dismissal of the IPCC’s grave imperative by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “It delivers what we need to get the Paris Agreement off the ground. The fundamentals are in place.”

In the end, the U.S. delegation played a constructive role as well as a disruptive one. “Overall, the U.S. role here has been somewhat schizophrenic—pushing coal and dissing science on the one hand but also working hard in the room for strong transparency rules,” Diringer said. “The U.S. got a clear methodology to make sure that China and India are meeting their targets,” said Jake Schmidt, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international policy director. “That creates the level playing field they have been asking for.”

“The real test is what happens when countries go home,” said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “All the decision text in the world doesn’t cut a molecule of carbon. You need action on the ground.”

“Science has clearly shown that we need enhanced ambition to defeat climate change. From now on, my five priorities will be ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition,” saidU.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

How fast the world forsakes coal—or not—will be a big part of that “ambition.” The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its latest forecast Tuesday, predicting that the world’s appetite for coal will hold steady over the coming five years thanks to rising demand in Asia offsetting declines in North America and Europe. “…[C]oal’s contribution to the global energy mix is forecast to decline slightly, from 27 percent in 2017 to 25 percent by 2023,” the Paris-based intergovernmental organization said. The IPCC prescribedcutting global coal-fired power generation to near zero by 2050 to maintain any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals of keeping warming to 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial times.

“The story of coal is a tale of two worlds, with climate action policies and economic forces leading to closing coal power plants in some countries, while coal continues to play a part in securing access to affordable energy in others,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA’s director for energy markets and security. “For many countries, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, it is looked upon to provide energy security and underpin economic development.”

Climate context

Amid all the kerfuffle generated by the summit in Poland, some of the scientific findings revealed at this month’s American Geophysical Union conference received short shrift. Authors of one such paper presented historic evidence that the current melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is not unlike conditions some 125,000 years ago that led to the ice sheet’s collapse, which raised sea levels 20 to 30 feet higher than today’s. “…[T]he West Antarctic ice sheet might not need a huge nudge to budge,” lead author Jeremy Shakun, a paleoclimatologist at Boston College, told Science magazine. “…[T]he big uptick in mass loss observed there in the past decade or two is perhaps the start of that process rather than a short-term blip.”

study published today in the journal Science looked at a potential “domino effect” from the interaction of tipping points in disparate parts of Earth’s operating system, such as the meltdown of Arctic sea ice and the bleaching of coral reefs. The researchers concluded that while some of the “regime shifts” caused by climate change are isolated, others could be compounded by their interactions with one another. “So much is happening at the same time and at a faster speed than we would have thought 20 years ago. That’s a real concern,” said co-author Garry Peterson, a professor of environmental sciences at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “We’re heading ever faster towards the edge of a cliff.”

The Met Office, Britain’s national weather service, predictedThursday that 2019 would bring “close to record warmth due to climate change and the added effect of El Niño-related warming in the Pacific.” The forecast calls for an average global temperature between 0.98°C and 1.22°C above pre-industrial times, which could beat 2016’s warmest year on record. “Our forecasts suggest that by the end of 2019, 19 of the 20 warmest years on record will have occurred since the year 2000,” said Adam Scaife, who leads long-term prediction research for the Met Office.

Meanwhile, 2018 looks likely to leave 78 U.S. cities, including Washington, DC, with their wettest years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some states in the Mid Atlantic saw rainfall 20 inches above average, while Wilmington, North Carolina, received 40 inches more than usual, topping 100 inches for the year. Seattle, infamous for its rain, averages only 37.49 inches annually.Surprises

A surprising 81 percent of registered American voters said they support a Green New Deal, according to new survey results released last Friday by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. While Democratic respondents were more enthusiastic, with 92 percent expressing support, 64 percent of Republicans were like-minded. The key caveat is that the survey did not identify the Green New Deal as coming from left-leaning Democrats. “Indeed, before we shared our description of the deal with survey participants, we first asked them how much, if anything, they had heard about it. Very few people had heard about it. In fact, 82 percent of registered voters had heard ‘nothing at all’ about the deal,” the authors of a report on the findings wrote.

More than a dozen Amazon employees with shares in the company have submitted a shareholder resolution asking the e-commerce monolith for a public report “describing how Amazon is planning for disruptions posed by climate change and how Amazon is reducing its company-wide dependence on fossil fuels.” The move was surprising in that employee shareholders are rarely seen “taking a stand in regard to the company they’re working for,” said Natasha Lamb, a managing partner at the impact investment firm Arjuna Capital.

By last Friday’s deadline, three companies had submitted winning bids totaling a surprising—and record-setting—$405.1 million for leases to build wind farms in federal waters off Massachusetts. “We are completely blown away by this result,” said Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “Just three years ago, these lease areas had no bidders at all,” said Liz Burdock, president of the Business Network for Offshore Wind. In a related story, Bloomberg reported Thursday that an Italian company “just sold its lease to develop a wind farm in waters off the New Jersey coast for $215 million, about 21,000 percent more than it paid only three years ago.” Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts offshore wind power in America will climb from today’s 30 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts by 2030.

United States

The past seven days once again brought a flurry of idiosyncratic climate news from the U.S. government.

More than 300 mayors, state representatives and elected officials from 40 U.S. states who described themselves as “deeply concerned about the devastating impacts of climate change” released a letter last Friday to “elected officials throughout America,” calling for a Green New Deal to usher in “a swift, managed decline of fossil fuel production” and use.

That followed on the heels of a report from the Congressional Budget Office that basically said climate change would be no big deal for the American economy. “Many estimates suggest that the effect of climate change on the nation’s economic output… will probably be small over the next 30 years and larger, but still modest, in the following few decades,” the report said. It also noted advantages from global warming, such as “fewer deaths from cold weather” and “improvements in agricultural productivity” in some regions. “That’s just completely false,” Gary Yohe, an environmental economist at Wesleyan University, told the HuffPost.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a champion of fossil fuels who is the subject of myriad federal ethics investigations, submitted his resignation Saturday. On Thursday, he announced his agency’s further incursion into the once-sacrosanct Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to allow oil and gas extraction. “An energy-dominant America starts with an energy-dominant Alaska, and among the scores of accomplishments we have had at Interior under President Donald J. Trump, taking these steps toward opening… of Alaska’s North Slope stands out among the most impactful toward bolstering America’s economic strength and security,” Zinke said in a statement. “At a time when our leaders should be focused on avoiding catastrophic climate change, they are running headlong toward it, inviting tragic consequences for the Arctic,” said Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen.

Earthjustice will represent the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Pacific Environment in a lawsuit filed Monday to challenge the Trump administration’s approval of the first offshore oil drilling development in federal waters of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea. “We can’t let this reckless administration open the Arctic to offshore oil drilling. It threatens Arctic wildlife and communities and will only make climate chaos worse around the world,” Kristen Monsell, legal director for oceans at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.

In a related story, nine states asked to join a lawsuit filedTuesday to stop the Trump administration from allowing seismic testing in advance of permitting offshore oil and natural gas drilling along the East Coast. “While the administration continues to place the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources, attorneys general up and down the Atlantic coast will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our shores to drilling for oil and gas,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat leading the coalition that also includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

As a partial shutdown of the federal government loomed, President Donald Trump on Thursday signed the 2018 farm bill, which brought applause from environmentalists for the $25 million in annual funding it will provide for a pilot project aimed at improving soil health and lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s agriculture sector. “The bipartisan bill rewards farmers for fighting climate change, preparing for extreme weather and protecting water quality,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Trump did not mention this facet of the bill and may not have known of its existence.

In news from the state level, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced Monday his state would rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the lucrative nine-state carbon-trading program from which it withdrew under former Governor Chris Christie, a Republican. “Pulling out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in 2012 was not only an abdication of leadership, but it also cost us millions of dollars that could have been used to increase energy efficiency and improve air quality in our communities,” Murphy said. “Today’s action is an important first step toward restoring our place as a leader in the green economy and keeping us on a path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050 for the benefit of all New Jerseyans.”

The city council in Washington, DC, on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill requiring that utilities source all electricity used in the District of Columbia from solar or wind by 2032. The bill also mandates energy-efficiency standards for buildings, orders a full transition to electric buses by 2030 and calls for incentives for drivers to choose lower-emission vehicles. Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser has 10 days to sign the legislation, after which Congress has 30 days to veto it.

Also on Tuesday, the nation’s capital joined Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia in signingon to the new Transportation and Climate Initiative. The signatories agreed to, within one year, develop a joint policy that would “cap and reduce” the region’s transportation emissions. “One of the big stories coming out of the climate negotiations in Poland is that the real work of cutting carbon pollution has to happen within each country,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, which helped facilitate the agreement. “In the U.S., that leadership is coming from states, cities and businesses, and this new announcement… represents one of the most important next steps in achieving real reductions.”


China’s coal sector sits at the “center of the global energy stage,” the International Energy Agency said Tuesday in releasing its latest five-year coal forecast. “While China accounts for nearly half of the world’s coal consumption, its clean-air measures are set to constrain Chinese coal demand going forward. We forecast Chinese coal demand to fall by around 3 percent over the period.”

Which is nothing close to what the IPCC deems all-important for avoiding disruptive climate change. And while China did much to save the day at the global climate summit in Poland, this troublesome truth about its coal habit remains unchanged.

“Although increasing [natural] gas use works towards alleviating some of the tensions inherent in the generation of energy, the move doesn’t address the underlying issue of pollution—the fact that China continues to rely on coal and the coal-guzzling metals industry for economic growth,” a Hong Kong political consultant Dmitriy Frolovskiy wroteWednesday in the South China Morning Post. “Although the central government instituted capacity cuts this year for both steel and [aluminum] production, it’s up to the local governments to implement them, based on officials’ personal assessment. Given that regional officials still very much focus on industrial output as a yardstick of success, the fact that predominantly idle capacity has been axed is not surprising, and naturally has had very little real impact on reducing air pollution.”

Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst in the Greenpeace Global Air pollution Unit concurred. “The problem is that [China’s] economic and… environmental policy are pushing in different directions,” he told WBUR radio in Boston. “We have an economic policy which is very supportive of heavy industry and construction.” The key to shifting this stubborn paradigm is not imposing tougher emissions limits on industry but rather changing the country’s industrial base to something cleaner, according to Myllyvirta. “The worst-case scenario would be starting another massive stimulus package like there was in 2008 and 2015, which would see a boom in construction and heavy industry—that’s the scenario where we could see things going backwards,” he said.

Meanwhile, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced Tuesday it had signed “strategic cooperation agreements” for oil and gas exploration off the Pearl River Delta with nine multinational companies including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Total. Earlier this year, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) announced a strategic partnership with Brazil’s Petrobras and agreed to cooperate with Norway’s Equinor to increase Chinese natural gas production.

The China Daily reported today that PetroChina, an arm of CNPC, had tapped a new source of natural gas southwestern Sichuan province. “The successful gas drilling in the Sichuan basin’s volcanic stratum proves geologists’ judgment that abundant gas is contained in the Sichuan basin’s thick volcanic stratum,” said Han Xiaoping, chief analyst at China Energy Net Consulting. “It also gives evidence-based support to the theoretical assumptions of how to explore natural gas in similar geographical structures across the country, such as that in Northeast China and Hainan province.” Han emphasized the importance of this possible “breakthrough” in ensuring China’s success in weaning itself from coal.


While China continues to have the world’s biggest appetite for coal, India’s appetite is the fastest growing, although the International Energy Agency (IEA) sees India’s 3.9-percent annual rate of increase slowing.

The government of India’s subsidies for energy production overall decreased 36 percent from 2014 to 2017, however, subsidies for coal-fired power increased, according to a report by the Canada-based International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water headquartered in New Delhi. “A growing share of subsidies are dedicated to making India’s energy mix cleaner. Despite this, subsidies to oil, gas and coal were more than three times the value of subsidies to renewables and electric vehicles in India in fiscal year 2017,” said Vibhuti Garg, a senior IISD energy analyst. “Financial incentives to the coal sector risk further entrenching fossil fuels in India’s energy mix.”

In related news, Greenpeace India said Wednesday that it might be forced to cut its staff by half next year because the government continues to block its bank accounts over allegations of receiving illegal foreign donations. “There are multi-pronged attacks on us,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam, the group’s campaign manager for climate and energy. “The coal industry is strong and powerful, even if governments do want to move away from coal, including for climate change reasons.”

Asok Dasgupta, president of the Independent Power Producers Association of India, cried foul at being blamed for the harassment of Greenpeace and puzzled over the organization’s campaign to phase out coal. “I don’t understand this opposition to coal,” he told Reuters. “Renewable power can’t take over [from] coal for many, many years. Fortunately we have got good coal reserves and we should use them.” Some 15,000 non-governmental organizations reportedly have had their registrations revoked under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014.

Looking forward

Climate change news looks poised for a hiatus as people in many parts of the world take a much-needed break to celebrate Christmas and welcome a fresh new year. Here’s a tiny sampling of what to look for as 2019 unfolds.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican, and Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill Wednesday that would tax carbon emissions—a companion to a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives in November. “Republicans need to get serious about climate change. That’s why I introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax bill in the House several years ago,” tweeted Flake, who is retiring this month. The last-minute proposal will expire with the current session of Congress, but it is likely to resurface in the new Congress, along with other aspects of a Green New Deal. “I look forward to working closely with Senator Coons and my fellow House sponsors to re-introduce the legislation next year,” said Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who co-sponsored the House version.

Another interesting piece of news on the horizon for 2019 comes from four non-governmental organizations that announced Monday they intend to sue the government of France for failing to act on what they claim is a legal obligation to mitigate climate change. If the suit comes to fruition, French President Emmanuel Macron could find himself caught between the “yellow vests” protesting climate action and the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme, Greenpeace France, Notre Affaire à Tous and Oxfam France protesting climate inaction.

Also on the docket for the New Year, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have scheduled a hearing in March to investigate the role U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil played in spreading climate disinformation across the pond. “Exxon has a shameful history of funding climate change denial—paying for fake science and dangerous lies that have prevented us from taking timely action on climate change and forcing the world into the current climate crisis,” said Molly Scott Cato, the Green Party MEP representing South West England and Gibraltar.

Whatever happens in 2019 regarding climate change, it promises to be a fascinating trip through uncharted territory.