Reigning in Climate Change?
Bob Sheak, September 28, 2018
Governor Jerry Brown recently joined with others to convene the Global Climate Action Summit in September 12-14, 2018, in San Francisco. The purpose: to boost international efforts to keep the earth’s temperature from rising to no higher than 2 degrees Celsius, a measure that is believed to be a point at which irreversible and catastrophic climate changes will occur. (See Joseph Romm’s discussion of the 2-degree measure in his book, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, pp. 151-159). Those attending the Summit included officials from state and local governments, from non-profit organizations, experts from academia, and corporate executives. While the Summit was filled with good intentions and though it wound up on a high note, there are reasons to question whether it will have the political impact that will move humanity toward a stable and sustainable climate. One lingering question, among many, is whether we in the U.S. and those in other capitalist economies can find ways to live compatibly and sustainably with nature in an economy that requires unending growth.
The disconcerting evidence: the transformation of the earth’s climate continues unabated
What the scientists say
The scientific evidence is overwhelming that human-caused, increasingly disruptive climate change is occurring. There are multiple books, an increasing body of scientific research, and a host of in-depth journalistic articles based on authoritative sources that confirm the existence of the phenomenon. Most climate scientists have long endorsed the evidence-based proposition that the climate is changing and that it is happening at an accelerating rate.
Andrea Germanos reports that last November nearly 17,000 scientists from 180 countries issued a warning to humanity about the advanced and unfolding disruptive changes in the “biosphere” in a letter published in the international journal BioScience. (2017). Unless humanity, that is the world’ governments, set about making transformative changes in their societies soon, the scientists believe that the best evidenced indicates that there will be “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” The scientists are especially troubled by actually observed trends, that is, of rising greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, agricultural production, and the sixth mass extinction event underway” (http://commondreams.org/news/2017/11/13/over-1500-scientists-just-issued-second-notice-humanity-can-we-listen-now). With respect to agriculture, they are referring to the dominant agriculture system that relies on chemical fertilizers that degrade soil, generates carbon emissions, and overutilizes and contaminates water sources.
Wikipedia, the on-line public encyclopedia, has an overview of the scientific position on global warming/climate change.
“Several studies of the consensus have been undertaken. Among the most-cited is a 2013 study of nearly 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science published since 1990, of which just over 4,000 papers expressed an opinion on the cause of recent global warming. Of these, 97% agree, explicitly or implicitly, that global warming is happening and is human-caused. It is “extremely likely” that this warming arises from “… human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases …” in the atmosphere. Natural change alone would have had a slight cooling effect rather than a warming effect.
“This scientific opinion is expressed in synthesis reports, by scientific bodies of national or international standing, and by surveys of opinion among climate scientists. Individual scientists, universities, and laboratories contribute to the overall scientific opinion via their peer-reviewed publications, and the areas of collective agreement and relative certainty are summarised in these respected reports and surveys. The IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was completed in 2014. Its conclusions are summarized below:
- “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia”.
- “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years”.
- Human influence on the climate system is clear.It is extremely likely (95-100% probability) that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951-2010.
- Without new policies to mitigate climate change, projections suggest an increase in global mean temperature in 2100 of 7 to 4.8 °C, relative to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 to 7.8 °C including climate uncertainty).
Wikipedia reports that all national or international science academies and scientific societies agree with this scientific opinion on global warming. “No scientific body of national or international standing maintains a formal opinion dissenting from any of these main points.” Furthermore, evidence from the prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) indicates that the hottest years on record are all recent years: 2015, 2016, 2017, and, by all the current evidence, 2018 (https://www.ecowatch.com/hottest-four-years-ever-259119422.html).
The consequences of global warming
Consistent with this evidence, there are a growing number of severe weather events each year, including wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. The snow-ice covers in the polar regions are shrinking, coral reefs are dying, water tables are falling, desertification is spreading, and the oceans are warming and undergoing massive acidification. Some of the changes intensive the problems. Extensive deforestation is reducing one of the earth’s most important “carbon sinks,” that is, the ability of forests to take carbon out of the atmosphere. And there are other examples. As the ice/snow sheets in the arctic are reduced, more of the sun’s ultra-violet rays are retained on earth rather than reflected into space. There is also the danger that as the permafrost in northern regions (e.g., Siberia) melts that enormous volumes of methane will be released into the atmosphere. Bill McKibben made the prescient argument in 2010 in his book eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet that the earth’s climate system had already been transformed in ways that made life as we know it increasingly precarious.
The initial international responses in the 1990s
As the scientific evidence mounted on climate change in the 1980s and early 1990s, a global treaty on the environment was approved at the United Nations by all the world’s leading countries. It is called United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was formally agreed upon at the Conference of the Parties (COP) at the June 1992 Rio Earth Summit. According to Joseph Romm, “The goal of the treaty was to set up an international process to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference in the climate system” (Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know). It was acknowledged that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs” (p. 150). It followed that, though controversial, the “developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” This has not yet happened, as of twenty-six years later in 2018.
There have been subsequent COP gatherings in most years. In 1997, the countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan, and negotiated “the Kyoto Protocol, which set targets and timetables [but] only for the emissions of rich countries.” While almost every industrialized nation ratified the Protocol, the United States did not. The agreement failed in reducing global emissions, due to “the absence of the United States coupled with rapid growth in developing countries’ emissions post-2000, particularly China’s,” and “overall global emissions continue to grow.” But over the years the most momentous meeting came in December 2015 at the twenty-first meetings of COP.
A commitment to action by the nations of the world
Representatives from over 160 countries convened a two-week conference on November 30, 2015, in Le Bourget in Paris – and other countries not in attendance expressed their support. The principal objective of the conference was to achieve for the first time a legally binding and universal agreement on climate from all the nations of the world. Binding! Each of the nations were asked to submit specific targets and timelines for reducing their respective emissions. The hope was that, in the aggregate, the global temperature would be kept below 2 degrees Celsius (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_United_Nations_Climate_Change_Conference).
Even before the conference, 180+ countries had made such commitments to develop specific targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and timelines. President Obama read a statement to the nation, saying that the Agreement was an unprecedented achievement of historic proportions and it’s taking humanity in the right direction toward a carbon-free global environment. He also acknowledged that ultimate success depended not only on the signatory nations’ willingness and capacity to follow through on their initial pledges but also on their ability to go beyond these pledges (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/12/12/statement-president-paris-climate-agreement).
There was a lot to be thankful for. The world’s leaders supported, in principle if not action, the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Most nations had identified, or were expected to identify, specific targets for emissions reductions. There was a framework and process in place for monitoring the process. However good the initial intentions, the targets have not yet been translated into the promised action. The famous climate scientist James Hansen expected as much when he said that “There is no action, just promises” (https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/cop21-father-of-climate-awareness-james-hansen-denounces-paris-agreement-as-a-fraud-a677171.html).
Craig Welch writes in a piece published in the National Geographic reporting that according to two important scientific evaluations of the emission-reduction targets submitted by the nations, the targets will not achieve their goal of keeping the earth’s temperature below the 2-degree target. Here’s what Welch wrote.
“Before arriving in Paris, 187 countries, representing more than 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, submitted plans to reduce their emissions in coming decades. [However] [t]hose plans come nowhere close of reaching the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees – let alone 1.5 degrees [as recommended by James Hansen and other climate scientists]. In fact, analyses by two teams – one in Germany, one associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – say the plans, if followed, would lead to between 2.7 or 3.5 degrees of warming” (http://news-national-geographic.com/2015/12/151212-Paris-climate-change-agreement-fossil-fuels/#VmyojCdAAK.twitter). In this eventuality, the climate disruptions (e.g., severe weather events) we now experience would become more frequent and more destructive, leading to vast numbers of environmental refugees, failed states, violence, and widespread poverty.
In a recent article published in the New York Times, Brad Plumer reports that, limited to begin with, “most national governments are falling short of their promises to curb greenhouse gas emissions” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/climate/california-climate-summit.html). To make matters worse, Plumer adds, “the Trump administration has been pushing to roll back many of the most prominent federal climate policies” at the Environmental Protection Agency and all agencies in the executive branch that have any influence on energy/environmental policies. Then, on June 1, 2017, Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement.
Especially bad climate news continues under Trump
Timmons Roberts identifies the reasons that motivated Trump to do this in an article for Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2018/06/01/one-year-since-trumps-withdrawal-from-the-paris-climate-agreement). The president believes that the claims about climate change are a hoax and dismisses or ignores the massive scientifically-derived evidence to the contrary. He dislikes international agreements of any sort and, according to Roberts, had “developed a posture that asserted American dominance and unwillingness to be influenced by foreign governments.” Trump promises coal miners that he will rollback Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. His decision was political in other respects as well, including his close relations with “radical right-wing organization funded by the fossil fuel industry [which] influenced his campaign, the transition into the presidency,” and his administration continuously. Roberts adds: “his cabinet, top advisers, and appointees are direct transplants from fossil fuel companies and the think tanks organizations they fund.” And his decision and general views on climate change and his fossil-fuel oriented energy policy are in line with the position taken by the Republican Party and Republicans in both houses of the U.S. Congress.
Responses to Trump and the reality of the climate crisis
Brad Plumer reports in the article referred to above that there was an almost immediate response to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. He writes: “Hours after President Trump announced last year that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, a broad group of governors, mayors and business executives declared that they would uphold the agreement anyway and continue tackling global warming on their own”(https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/climate/california-climate-summit.html).
There were two developments or reactions that were given added momentum or that were forthcoming.
States, local governments, and even some corporations have taken or plan steps to reduce carbon emissions.
California’s Governor Brown signed a bill on September 10, 2018, Plumer writes, requiring the state “to get 100 percent of [its] electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2045,” while also setting “a goal of putting 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030” and “dedicating $2.5 billion to vehicle rebates and charging infrastructure.” Other states, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington, are taking similar steps. But as of now, according to Plumer, “[o]nly 16 states and Puerto Rico have actually promised to uphold the Paris agreement. Most of those states are led by Democrats, and efforts to persuade Republican-led states like Ohio or Texas to join have been largely unsuccessful.”
There is also some positive activity at the city level. In more than “70 cities have signed onto a goal of buying enough renewable power to offset all of their electricity consumption, though many mayors are now pondering how to pull that off.” At the same time, while many power plants now burn natural gas and renewables rather than coal, there are still a lot of emissions from “cars and trucks, farming, and industrial sectors like cement and steel.” And, when you consider the full story of natural gas, from the mining of silica, to the transportation of the silica, chemicals, and water to fracking sites (all materials used in the extraction of natural gas from deep in the ground), to leaks in the pipelines and flaring of gas, to the drilling for the gas [and oil], to the pipelines that convey the gas to power plants and other production sites, to the burning of the gas in power plants, to the transportation of wastes from the fracking sites, there is a tremendous amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, emitted into the atmosphere. For example, Sharon Kelly reports for Desmogblog on a new study that finds “methane leaks from oil and gas are 60 percent higher than EPA estimates (https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/06/21/methane-leaks-oil-gas-60-higher-epa-estimates-science-study-edf).
There is some positive news on the corporate front. Plumer notes that “dozens of Fortune 500 companies including Google, Apple and Wal-Mart have voluntarily invested billions of dollars into building new wind and solar farms to power their operations.” But the great majority are doing nothing or nothing of real significance.
While there is some laudable activity, the U.S. is overall not doing so well. Plumer writes that “the United States is still falling far short of its Paris Agreement pledges.” He refers to a study in June of this year “by the research firm Rhodium Group [which] estimated that the country was on pace to get only about halfway to former President Barack Obama’s promise under the pact to cut America’s emissions at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” This already limited goal was not being achieved.
The Global Climate Action Summit
Another response to Trump’s policies, as reported by Plumer, came from California’s Governor Brown, who organized a meeting, dubbed the Global Climate Action Summit, to bring “an array of governors, mayors and business executives from around the globe “to promote their successes in cutting greenhouse gas emissions locally and to encourage one another to do more. Representatives from other countries were in attendance, as Plumer reports.
“Governor Brown met with Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief climate negotiator, and announced plans for California and China to work together on zero-emissions vehicles and fuel-cell research. Later in the week, several blue-state governors met behind closed doors with the environment ministers of Canada and Mexico to forge new partnerships on issues like electric vehicles and curbing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”
“There was no shortage of announcements at the meeting. Cities like Tokyo, Rotterdam and West Hollywood signed joint pledges to only buy zero-emissions buses after 2025. Companies like Walmart and Unilever rolled out new programs to limit deforestation in their huge supply chains. Dozens of philanthropic groups committed $4 billion over the next five years to fight climate change.”
According to the Summit’s website, there were four highly optimistic goals.
#1 – It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. – This was accomplished.
#2 – It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.
#3 – The decarbonization of the global economy is in sight. Transformational changes are happening across the world and across all sectors as a result of technological innovation, new and creative policies and political will at all levels.
#4 – States and regions, cities, businesses and investors are leading the charge on pushing down global emissions by 2020, setting the stage to reach net zero emissions by midcentury. Summit (https://www.globalclimateactionsummit.org/about-the-summit)
While the Summit included only a relatively small number of actors, given the global aspirations of the Summit, the organizing premise was lofty, that is, “if a handful of leading-edge states, cities and businesses can demonstrate that it’s feasible — and even lucrative — to go green in their own backyards, they might inspire others to follow suit. That, in turn, could [it was hoped], make it easier for national leaders to act more forcefully.” Governor Brown and the other participants wanted also to let the world know that there were groups outside of the Trump’s government in the United States that would speak for the nation on climate policy. And, indeed, there is now a U.S. coalition, at least in name, consisting of “16 states, Puerto Rico, hundreds of cities and nearly 2000 businesses” that “has vowed to press ahead with climate action and ensure that the United States meets former President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.”
Brown and other Summit leaders also hoped that their gathering would generate momentum “around action on clean energy and global warming as United Nations climate negotiations are scheduled to take place in Poland in December (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/15/climate/california-climage-summit.html). However, it is expected to be a contentious meeting, as government officials from over 180 states attempt to “finalize a ‘rule book’ for implementing the Paris Agreement,” while taking up complex and controversial issues “like how to track and verify emissions cuts,” and how many nations will decide “whether to strengthen their national pledges on climate action, which are currently far too weak to avoid drastic warming.” There were preliminary negotiations in Bangkok this month (September 2018) that “fell into disarray… as poorer countries accused wealthier nations, including the United States, of reneging on their promises for financial aid to fight climate change.”
There are other concerns. Researchers associated with the Governor’s efforts released a road map, Plumer writes, “for what it would take to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.” He continues: “It entailed a rapid transformation of the world’s energy system (measures such as banning the sales of gasoline vehicles in many cities within a decade) that went far beyond many of the proposals made in California.” He adds:
“Those states and cities would have to pursue ambitious new policies, like retrofitting hundreds of buildings to make them more energy efficient and plugging methane emissions from landfills, to get closer to the target. They would also have to persuade several other states beyond the blue coastal enclaves to join them, the report found.
“For example, mayors from dozens of the world’s largest cities promised to cut the amount of trash they send to landfills in half, build more carbon-neutral buildings and encourage walking and cycling in their cities over the next few decades. But how well these mayors follow through remains to be seen.”
Grassroots critics raise questions about Gov. Brown’s record and the authenticity of the summit
In addition to the doubts about whether the Summit’s coalition will be effective nationally or internationally, Oliver Milman covered protests outside the conference hall in a story for The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/13/san-francisco-global-climate-action-summit-protests). He reported that thousands of protestors “attempted to barricade entrance at the summit and criticized Jerry Brown for allowing over 20,000 drilling operations” in the state. They claimed that “he has largely abandoned certain neighborhoods to pollution from oil and gas drilling operations. California’s Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in the country. Across the US, sicknesses linked to air and water pollution are disproportionately felt by people of color, who are far more likely to live near power plants, landfills and other toxic sites.” Milman writes further: “Activists chanted ‘Tell Jerry Brown to keep it in the ground’ and held signs reading ‘Don’t drill’ and ‘We’re drowning’. There were scuffles as police attempted to remove several protesters who chained themselves to the gates of the conference building in downtown San Francisco. Inside the venue, protesters interrupted a speech by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, by chanting: ‘Our air is not for sale.’”
Something must be done
It remains questionable whether the next COP (Conference of the Parties) meeting, or any subsequent international meeting, can be successful in reducing carbon emissions enough to keep the earth’s temperature under the 2-degree goal. As indicated in this essay, some of the evidence indicates that many nations are failing to fulfill their promises to reduce emissions. In the United States, the second largest carbon emitter, Trump and his Republican and corporate allies are by and large pushing fossil fuels and environmental deregulation. While the renewables part of the U.S. energy system is growing, fossil fuels still provide the lion’s share of energy, while the transportation system and the U.S. military still run overwhelmingly on gasoline, and while homes and buildings are air-conditioned with electricity generated largely by coal and increasingly by natural gas. While many U.S. citizens tell pollsters that they are concerned about the environment, it is not a high priority for the majority of Americans, and it is not likely to be an issue that figures prominently in the upcoming mid-term elections scheduled for November of this year.
In one of his terrifically informative reviews of recent research on the human-driven cataclysmic climate change and the multitude of dire environmental effects that accompanies it, Dahr Jamail offers the following discomforting introductory statements to his most recent post of September 25, 2018 (https://truthout.org/articles/brace-for-impact-as-the-climate-end-game-has-arrived).
“…the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) will assuredly continue to worsen.
“In one of the more important recent scientific studies, published in the journal Science, researchers warn that ACD could cause many of the planet’s ecosystems to become unrecognizable.
“’Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity,” reads the abstract of the study.
“Stephen Jackson, the lead author of the study, told The Washington Post, “Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about.”
“This summer’s extraordinary heat wave across the Northern Hemisphere was and is in no way an anomaly. Another recent study warned that there will be at least four more years of extreme temperatures. This means temperatures are expected to be warmer than expected, even above and beyond the abnormal warming being generated by ACD.
“Given the fact that there are already places in the Arctic where the ground no longer freezes, even during the winter, this does not bode well.
“Another recent report, What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk by Australian researchers with the independent think tank National Centre for Climate Restoration, is blunt about the fact that we are rapidly leaving the safe zone for human habitability on the planet. They note that ACD poses an ‘existential risk to human civilization,’ with dire consequences unless dramatic actions are taken toward mitigation. The paper also points out how climate research, including the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has consistently underplayed these risks and leaned towards conservative projections. The paper even goes on to call the IPCC ‘dangerously misleading’ regarding its low-ball predictions of accelerating ACD.
“’Climate change is now reaching the end-game,’ the foreword to the report reads, ‘where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.’”
Is there a way forward that will cut carbon emissions enough?
If we are to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming/climate change, or what Jamail calls anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), there has to be an awakening to the problem of the citizenry in the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Brazil, Russia, India, Australia, and elsewhere, accompanied by the education and mobilization of citizens to change politics as usual and realize that hyper consumption, unlimited economic growth, and vast military spending must end. And there must also be a compelling vision of what it is that can replace the current system. You can find, as an example, such a vision in the work of James Gustave Speth, Carla Santos Skandier, and Johann Bozuwa, titled “Taking climate action to the next level” (https://thenextsystem.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/2018-09/Climate_Final-for-web.pdf). In their introduction, they provide an overview of their position. If you have time, read the report for the specific proposals and supporting evidence. From the introduction:
“We need to start implementing energy interventions today in key points of the system with the aims of deploying renewable energy and energy efficiency, and changing our political economy to one that is truly just and democratic.
“Three groundbreaking and complementary interventions…could start transforming the power structures that promote and enable our problematic energy and economic systems: Quantitative Easing for the Planet charts ways to halt fossil fuel extraction and dissolve entrenched opposition from major fossil fuel companies at the federal level; Public Ownership for Energy Democracy investigates opportunities for putting electricity generation and distribution back into community hands while enhancing democratic governance starting at the local level; An Anchor Strategy for the Energy Transition spells out how large mission-driven energy consumers can help build community systems and local demand for renewable energy sources, jobs, and investments, creating alternatives to today’s extractive economy.”
Theirs is a radical proposal that runs counter to current policies that favor private-sector solutions. They recommend, among other changes, considerable nationalization: (1) “the government should secure control of fossil fuel reserves [and keep them in the ground] by promoting a federal buyout of the top U.S.-based, publicly-traded fossil fuel companies,” and (2) the “transitioning of energy utilities to public ownership” [encouraging the use of renewable sources of energy]. There is little reason to think that such changes are about to happen. Nonetheless, it’s useful to think about large-scale proposals for change away from the status quo that, by all the scientific evidence, takes us toward extreme disorder and misery. In the final analysis, radical change is what is needed. There is little doubt that the future will be shaped by necessity. The question is who will determine what is to be done. Governor Brown should be given credit for taking a modest step in the right direction. But a lot more is needed.