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PennFuture's Climate for Change :: Climate news from around the state, country and world

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014 -- the hottest year ever. Or, at a minimum, in a long, long time.

Nope, it wasn't just our imagination, or the power of suggestion. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has confirmed that "the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880."

Six months in 2014 set new records for warmth: May, June, August, September, October and December. October tied for record warmest.

If you are not convinced that looking at just one year, or five months within that year, shows a significant change, then how about this: 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 20 years. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred after 2002 (with the exception of 1998).

With all this bad news, are we making any serious progress with those who run the financial and business sectors of our economy? An encouraging sign is this recent quote about climate change in Fortune magazine: "The investment community... has woken up to this threat. It is demanding more information from companies about their exposure to climate events, as well as the prospective cost of their carbon emissions.”

Are we making progress in Congress? Perhaps a tiny little bit. Last week, more than 60 senators agreed that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. Sad as it as, this represents serious forward movement over the past decade. But we have to move faster.

The bright spots in federal leadership remain the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In last week's State of the Union address, the President said much about the issue, including this: "The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

The EPA has taken action by proposing rules to limit global warming pollution from any new and existing  fossil fuel-fired power plants and new and modified oil and gas wells. A good start, but we need federal and state governments to do so much more. We inch toward progress while the temperatures race up the scale.

Every decision maker needs to feel the heat (literally and figuratively) to act now.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Who will climate change hurt the most?

James K. Boyce wrote a fascinating opinion piece ("Get ready to make tough choices") about climate change for the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. (Boyce is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. He also presented a webinar for PennFuture several years ago on the positive economics of a cap-and-dividend approach to climate legislation.)

Professor Boyce is not the first to point out that it's now too late to prevent many of the harmful effects of climate change, so society must start making the difficult decisions now around how to adapt to climate change: Building sea walls to prevent the tragedy of the next Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Haiyan will be hugely expensive. Cooling centers and emergency services will be needed as well as water projects to help livestock survive the coming, intense droughts.

We certainly can't afford all of these things. So, which of these do we build? Which don't we build? How will we justify our choices to those who won't be protected?
Jim Boyce's research predicts that on our present course, world incomes will fall 25 percent across the board in the next 20 years as a result of climate disruption. Holy cow.

Here's the truly intriguing angle that Boyce then raises:

Who will be hurt more by the loss of so much income, the poorest Bangladeshi farmer or the wealthiest Manhattan real estate baron? The Bangladeshi making a dollar a day will have to get by on 75 cents a day. Hard to fathom. Terribly unjust.

The Manhattan one-percenter making $2,000 a day will have to "scrape by" on $1,500 a day. (Strike up tiny violins playing sad music.)

My indignation aligns entirely with the Bangladeshi's plight. And yet, the math shows that Mr. Got Rocks in NYC will lose 2,000 times more money ($500 versus 25 cents a day). Conventional economic wisdom treats every dollar equally, so the wealthy person's absolute loss is viewed as much more important than the dirt-poor farmer's loss. 

Jim Boyce suggests a different calculus, one that is much fairer: let's value every person equally, as the Declaration of Independence suggests. Indeed, Article 1, Chapter 27 of Pennsylvania's Constitution guarantees that "the people have a right to clean air [and] clean water." The people, not the dollars, are what Americans hold dear in their deepest values.

Boyce ends his Inquirer piece as follows: "In the years ahead, climate change will confront the world with hard choices: whether to protect as many dollars as possible, or to protect as many people as we can."

I certainly hope we make the right choice. All lives matter.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It’s time to reject Keystone XL, Mr. President

PennFuture closely coordinates its federal advocacy work with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) -- we're their state affiliate, after all. Lena Moffitt is NWF's manager of federal policy for climate and energy. She writes a guest post this week about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Lena has my personal thanks, since reading a piece she wrote several years ago opened my eyes to what a horrible idea this pipeline really is. Thanks for your leadership, Lena.

We've been fighting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline for nearly six years now - and
Joy Bergey and Rob Altenburg (PennFuture), Lena Moffitt (NWF),
and Chelsea Harnish (Virginia Conservation Network) left to right

the case for rejection is stronger than ever. While, yes, the Nebraska Supreme Court still has to decide whether the pipeline’s route through the state is legal or not, once that decision comes down, the time for “review” will be over and the time for rejection will be upon us.

In June 2013, in his historic climate speech at Georgetown University, President Obama said that Keystone XL would not be found to be in the national interest if the project “significantly exacerbate[s] the problem of carbon pollution.” Over the past year, it has become increasingly evident that Keystone XL would have a significant impact on destabilizing the climate, and should therefore be rejected. Since the State Department released its Final Environmental Impact Statement in January 2014, reality has demonstrated that Keystone XL is, in fact, key to expanded tar sands developments. Unlike the State Department’s erroneous conclusion, tar sands expansion is not inevitable and is, in fact, dependent on several key factors. Over the past 11 months, we’ve watched a natural experiment unfold, demonstrating what happens when a few key factors turn against the industry’s favor. These factors are detailed below:
  1.  The price of oil plummeted well below the State Department’s estimates. And without high oil prices, extremely expensive tar sands projects quickly become uneconomical. *
  2. Tar sands oil is not being transported by trains to the extent the State Department predicted. Rail remains an expensive, logistically difficult alternative that has not filled the place of needed pipeline capacity.
  3. Other pipelines (alternatives to Keystone XL) remain on hold and face increasing opposition, both in Canada and the U.S. From Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, to TransCanada’s Energy East Project, to the Portland-Montreal line, tar sand pipelines face mounting opposition and legal battles wherever they are proposed.
In the face of these three factors, tar sands developments are slowing down. In 2014 alone, three major tar sands projects have been canceled or indefinitely put on hold - Shell’s Pierre River, Total’s Joslyn North, and Statoil’s Corner project. These three projects had the potential to produce 4.7 billion barrels of bitumen over their lifetime, which would have cumulatively released 2.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The fact is that with oil prices low, tar sands producers’ profit margins are narrow, and they need cheap pipeline transportation options to get their product to market (transporting tar sands by rail is between 40 percent and up to 150 percent greater than pipeline transport). This means that a major, dedicated tar sands pipeline like Keystone XL, which would lock in cheap transportation for tar sands to the Gulf Coast, would be hugely beneficial to this industry, triggering other projects to move ahead.

And in fact, even the State Department’s FEIS indicated just that. The State Department considered several “scenarios” in its analysis and, under a scenario that looks like what reality has turned out to be – one with low oil prices, low transport of tar sands via rail, and constrained pipeline options – Keystone XL would, in fact, have “substantial impact on oil sands production levels,” and, thus, on the climate.

While the State Department deemed this scenario “unlikely” in February of this year, it is this very scenario that reality has borne out in the interim 11 months. Simply put, even the State Department’s FEIS indicates that Keystone XL will have a significant impact on the climate under circumstances like those we are seeing today.

Given this, along with the President’s resurgent leadership on climate lately (releasing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from our power sector, announcing an historic deal with China to reduce our nations’ economy-wide emissions, sending Secretary Kerry to Lima to forge a global climate agreement), the President is well positioned to seize yet another leadership moment for protecting the climate by rejecting Keystone XL. We certainly hope he does.

* WTI (a crude oil benchmark price) has lost around 40 percent since June. Many tar sands producers are cutting back capital expenditure as a result.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Eight million strong are demanding action on climate change

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially closed the public comment period on December 1 on their proposed standard to limit carbon pollution from existing (think "dirty old") power plants. This follows closely on the heels of another proposed standard from EPA that would limit carbon pollution from not-yet-built power plants.

It's great news that more than 8,000,000 Americans weighed in officially in support of these two proposed standards. There are so many reasons to support EPA on this: Concern about our children's future and everyone's health; worries about the economic devastation caused by ever-increasing extreme weather events; threats to national security; fear for wild animals and wild places; and more.

PennFuture's senior energy analyst, Rob Altenburg, an expert in federal and state legislation, did a great job explaining the human side of regulations in an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week.

Our staff gathered on December 1 alongside dozens of volunteers at EPA's Region III headquarters in Philadelphia to thank the agency for its great work, specifically on the proposed carbon pollution limits. Susan Saxe, a volunteer with the Philadelphia chapter of Pa. Interfaith Power and Light, baked an apple pie as a thank-you to EPA staff, because...protecting the environment is as American as apple pie!

"Kudos and Cookies" (led by Susan Saxe) baked a pie for the EPA.

Joy Bergey is federal policy director for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Great climate news: U.S. and China agree on serious carbon reductions

It's wonderful to read about the just-announced international agreement between the U.S and China to reduce CO2 emissions, especially in light of Congress' refusal so far to act on climate change.

These two nations are the 800-pound gorillas when it comes to carbon pollution, so without each of them acting, we're up the creek, as they say.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a terrific opinion piece in the New York Times outlining the deal. Here's what he wrote about target for U.S. reductions:
"The United States intends to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – a target that is both ambitious and feasible. It roughly doubles the pace of carbon reductions in the period from 2020 to 2025 as compared to the period from 2005 to 2020. It puts us on a path to transform our economy, with emissions reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050."
The political importance of this agreement is that it undercuts one of the big arguments that climate deniers have been using for years to fight against climate action: Why should the U.S. take action unilaterally? (My response has always been that if we think of ourselves as the world's leader, then we should accordingly and take the lead, even if unilaterally.)

Secretary Kerry eloquently removes that argument from the table with this announcement:
"We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone. Even if the United States somehow eliminated all of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions, it still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from China and the rest of the world. Likewise, even if China went down to zero emissions, it wouldn’t make enough of a difference if the United States and the rest of the world didn’t change direction." 
Details on the agreement are still emerging. Read more in the White House's fact sheet.

Thank you, Secretary Kerry.  You've made my day.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director. She's based in Philadelphia and tweets at @joybergey.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More confirmation of climate disruption and the urgency that's called for

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report this week on the state of climate change and it's not pretty.

Here are but a few tidbits of the bad news in the report (with my editorial comments):
  • Human influence on the climate is clear and recent emissions are the highest in history. (Not surprising, but still news to some people, apparently.)
  • The warming of the climate system is clear and, since the 1950’s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented.
  • Each of the last three decades have been successively warmer than any decade before them going back to 1850.
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, the last 30 years is likely the warmest 30-year period of the past 1,400 years.
  • From 1880 to 2012, the earth has warmed .85 degrees C.
  • More than 90 percent of the energy stored in the climate system from 1971 to 2010 is in the form of ocean warming; only one percent is stored in the atmosphere. (Uh-oh.)
  • The upper ocean -- the top 75 meters -- has warmed by .11 degrees C per decade since 1971, offering an explanation for the so-called slowdown in atmospheric warming.  (Are you listening, climate deniers?)
Note: The report issued this week is the third part -- the "synthesis" report -- of the fifth IPCC  report issued over the years. Confused? This might help. Want to read the report for yourself? Here's the 100+ page version  and here's the 40-page summary for policy makers.

All this new bad news just reinforces what readers of PennFuture's blogs likely already know: The climate is in crisis so we must act now at all levels of government to limit carbon emissions.

Joy Bergey is PennFuture's federal policy director. She's based in Philadelphia and tweets @JoyBergey.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sooty Linings Playbook -- brought to you by our frenemy, ALEC

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the innocuously-named American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, funded by huge corporate polluters and their deep-pocketed friends like the Koch brothers, has developed a playbook to get anti-environmental laws passed in state legislatures across the land.

The strategy starts with developing model bills that can be shared with legislators, who then introduce them in state capitols. (See the Center for Media Democracy's very helpful website, ALEC Exposed.)

ALEC is shameless about how little concern they have for the public good. They ferociously attack the idea that the country should begin to limit CO2 emissions, as shown in their EPA's Regulatory Train Wreck: Strategies for State Legislators.

This struck home all too painfully this month, when the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed (and Governor Tom Corbett signed) H.B. 2354, which we like to call the Stall on Carbon bill. Coal interests carried the day in Harrisburg to get this awful bill passed. Its aim is to interfere to the maximum extent possible with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed standard to limit CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The EPA proposal offers each state abundant flexibility in meeting its state-specific targets. Ironically, H.B. 2354 could backfire on its supporters by ultimately forcing the Commonwealth to forfeit all its flexibility under the rule and forcing the EPA to impose a top-down plan on Pennsylvania. It's embarrassing that so many of our state legislators who supported this terrible bill seem not to have thought this all through in advance.

Unlike Hollywood's playbook, which so easily brings us silver linings, we in Pennsylvania may be stuck with a sooty lining thanks to our frenemy, ALEC.
P.S. Want to see which fossil fuels giants are straddling the fence, claiming to care about climate change but are still part of ALEC? HuffPo sums it up nicely.

Joy Bergey is federal policy director for PennFuture and is based in Philadelphia. She tweets @joybergey.