Bob Sheak, July 16, 2020
The most abundant source of greenhouse gases and rising temperatures stem from the combustion of fossil fuels. The present economic system could not operate without them, as they power industry and much of transportation, energize residential dwellings and business, are integrated into existing power grids, employ tens of thousands of workers, and generate tax revenues for local and state governments, all this as well as wielding extraordinary political power at all levels of government. The great misfortune is that they also are degrading and destroying ecosystems, threatening the US and the world with a host of unfolding environmental calamities, and, not the least, undermining democracy.
But there are early signs that the power of fossil fuel interests is beginning to wane, though this may not happen enough to avoid more environmental devastation. The rising covid-19 pandemic is having a powerfully negative affect on most sectors of the economy and society, including the energy sector. The focus in this post will be on recent evidence documenting the worsening of the climate crisis, with references to and analysis of related current issues.
The Climate Crisis continues to intensify
In an article in Time magazine on July 9, 2020, Justin Worland writes that the evidence is compelling that “2020 Is Our Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet” and that there is little time left to do so (https://time.com/5864692/climate-change-defining-moment). The US, and indeed humanity, is at a decisive point in dealing with this huge anthropogenic and growing problem. We face two paths forward, as Worland sees it.
“In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff–or to take the last exit. Taking the threat seriously would mean using the opportunity presented by this crisis to spend on solar panels and wind farms, push companies being bailed out to cut emissions and foster greener forms of transport in cities. If we instead choose to fund new coal-fired power plants and oil wells and thoughtlessly fire up factories to urge growth, we will lock in a pathway toward climate catastrophe. There’s a divide about which way to go.”
The thrust of Worland’s first “green”path is consistent with what proponents call “A Green New Deal,” that is, the pressing need to mitigate the climate crisis by supporting the massive creation of solar, wind and geothermal energy systems. Though such achievements would be welcome, they may not be enough. In his new book, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Can, Stan Cox argues that Green New Deal initiatives must be broadened. Here’s what he writes:
“…I will present my case that the Green New Deal vision, ambitious as it is, must go even further and deeper. As the plan is formulated and carried out in coming months and years, it must be accompanied by effective mechanisms to (1) directly eliminate fossil fuels from the economy on an accelerated schedule, and (2) reverse the widespread ecological damage that has been done in the pursuit of economic growth – damage that reaches well beyond greenhouse warming” (xxiv).
On the first point, Cox is referring to the need for large and detailed government plans for an energy transformation, along with a pricing system on carbon emissions to discourage the use of fossil fuels and encourage alternative “renewables” and energy efficiency.. On the second point, he is referring, for example, to the need to reverse massive and ongoing deforestation, the soil-depleting industrial agriculture, the depletion of vital resources (e.g., fisheries), the monumental levels of waste produced by the present systems of production and consumption.
The Focus here
To repeat, this post will not delve into this broad range of issues. Rather, the focus will be on recent evidence documenting the worsening of the climate crisis, with references and analysis on related current issues.
Books to fill in the background on the climate crisis
There is a large literature devoted to the analysis of system-wide alternatives to the causes and remedies of the climate crisis and its myriad effects. Check out Stan Cox’s book and the following books:
- Victor Wallis, Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism
- Will Potter, Green is the New Red: An Insiders Account of a Social Movement Under Siege
- Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism
- Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society
- R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945
- Naomi Klein, The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal
- Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Gam Begun to Play Itself Out?
- Kristin Ohlson, the soil will save us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet
- Timothy A. Wise, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food
- Ian Angus, facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system
Now to the recent evidence on the climate crisis and related developments.
The Planet keeps getting hotter
Greenhouse gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere
As the result of the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as reported by Worland, “the world has already warmed 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution.” We are at risk of passing 2°C, at which time “we risk hitting one or more major tipping points, where the effects of climate change go from advancing gradually to changing dramatically overnight, reshaping the planet.” The 2018 “landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate-science body, warned that allowing the planet to warm any more than 2°C above preindustrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty, destroy coral reefs and leave some countries unable to adapt.” Then, in a 2019 analysis in the journal Nature, researchers “identified nine tipping points–from the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet to the thawing of Arctic permafrost–that the planet appears close to reaching, any one of which might very well be triggered if warming exceeds 1.5°C.”
Worland quotes Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “Going beyond 2°C is a very critical step not only in terms of economic and human impact but also in terms of the stability of the earth.” Keeping temperatures from rising past the 1.5°C goal means, according to a report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP), that “we would need to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions 7.6% every year for the next decade.” Worland notes that is the level the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce emissions this year by roughly this amount, but virtually no one thinks this deadly pandemic and accompanying economic contraction is a sustainable way to halt climate change–and “recessions are typically followed by sharp rebounds in emissions.” Rather, to “achieve the 1.5°C goal without creating mass disruption has always meant thoughtfully restructuring the domestic and global economies, including the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. Ominously, scientists and economists agree this is the last opportunity we have to do this.
Not much time
To avoid going to 2°C, Worland cautions, “we need to cut emissions in half by 2030.” This must be done at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is surging in the US and the news is focused on it. “Nevertheless,” he contends, “this year, or perhaps this year and next, is likely to be the most pivotal yet in the fight against climate change.” He quotes Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University, that the decisions we make now “will define the fate of the planet–and human life on it–for decades.” The US cannot curtail greenhouse gas emissions in an increasingly unregulated economy and concentrated economic power in most sectors, an fossil-fuel based energy system, with a right-wing government that supports unconditionally the system-wide imperative of maximizing profit mostly in disregard of present and future environmental and human harms.
Trump exacerbates the climate crisis
Trump and his administration have promoted and supported the present fossil-fuel based energy system. As Worland rightly points out, Trump “and his GOP allies in Congress have an effective stranglehold on any policy that could push the U.S. to decarbonize, and thus far they have rejected big legislation to address climate change–portraying it as ‘socialist’ and part of the Green New Deal that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party proposed last year to the derision of Republicans.”
Stacy Feldman and Marianne Lavelle provide an overview of “Donald Trump’s [destructive] Record on Climate Change” based on his desire to maintain and strengthen “unfettered fossil fuel development” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19122019/trump-climate-policy-record-rollback-fossil-energy-history-candidate-profile). Some evidence.
- “When U.S. government scientists released their latest volume of the National Climate Assessment, it revealed much about the robust, sobering scientific consensus on climate change. It also revealed the striking disconnect between President Donald Trump and essentially every authoritative institution on the threat of global warming. The president rejected the assessment’s central findings—based on thousands of climate studies and involving 13 federal agencies—that emissions of carbon dioxide are caused by human activities, are already causing lasting economic damage, and have to be brought rapidly to zero.” Trump’s response: “I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it.” Then, “his cabinet members launched attacks on the report, portraying it as ‘alarmist’ and clinging to Trump’s agenda of fossil fuel energy expansion that the science says is at the root of the problem.”
- “When Trump delivered his first major energy speech in the fracking fields of North Dakota as a candidate in May 2016, he called for American domination of global energy supplies. To make that happen, he wanted an end to all of President Barack Obama’s executive actions involving greenhouse gas emissions.”
- “As president, he has rolled back regulations on energy suppliers at a rapid clip slowed only at timesby the courts, while auctioning off millions of acres of new drilling leases on public land. Last year, domestic oil production hit a record high. The result of this, among other things, was the reversal of three consecutive years of declining U.S. carbon emissions.”
- “Trump began the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate treaty, the agreement signed by nearly all nations to reduce fossil fuel emissions. He replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan, intended to sharply reduce emissions from U.S. power plants. He took the first step to weaken fuel economy standards for cars, the single most important effort for reining in the largest driver of U.S. emissions.
- “His administration has undone or delayed—or tried to—most regulatory and executive actions related to climate change, while proposing new ones to accelerate fossil fuel development. Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law counts 131 actions toward federal climate deregulation since Trump took office. In the absence of any comprehensive national climate law, those moves have led to an erosion of the federal government’s main regulatory levers for cutting global warming emissions.
Trump and his administration have not paused in their support for the fossil fuel sector, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, Andy Rowland writes on Oil Exchange International that “a joint investigation by Documented and the Guardian reported that “over 5,600 fossil fuel companies have taken at least USD 3 billion in COVID-19 aid from the United States government.” He continues: “The paper reported that ‘the businesses include oil and gas drillers and coal mine operators, as well as refiners, pipeline companies and firms that provide services to the industry, “ adding that, “[w]orryingly, the USD 3 billion figure is probably ‘far less than the companies actually received’” https://priceofoil.org/2020/07/09/us-the-arctic-burns-trump-bailouts-fossil-fuel-industry-with-billions).
Presently, a lot depends on the outcome of the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. If Trump wins and/or the Republicans control the Senate, then fossil fuel interests will continue to benefit from beneficial tax treatment, government subsidies, deregulation, the low-cost opportunities to extract minerals from public land, and all with no regard to the ongoing and increasingly catastrophic environmental devastation. However, if they lose, the fossil-fuel interests will lose some, if not most, of their political advantages. Under such circumstances, consider some of the challenges that may end up reducing fossil fuels in the US political-economic system.
The political challenge: Biden and his campaign acknowledge the climate crisis and have a plan
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, takes the climate crisis seriously, though it remains to be seen whether as president he would advance policies that reflect sufficiently the deepening climate crisis. Still, he offers some hope. Worland points out that Biden has “touted his Green New Deal and has appointed a committee that includes both longtime Washington climate advocates like former Secretary of State John Kerry and emerging leaders of the Democratic progressive wing like current New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to craft new climate policy. Top congressional Democrats, signaling support for a big climate package, unveiled a 500-page legislative road map on June 30 that includes tax incentives and infrastructure spending to eliminate the country’s carbon footprint by 2050. It won’t become law this year, but it sends a signal that the issue will be on the legislative agenda if Biden wins in the fall.” Biden also promised at a League of Conservation Voters virtual event on June 16 “to re-engage with the rest of the world on the issue, including by helping fund climate measures in developing countries.”
Biden clarified what his climate policy will entail in a speech in Wilmington, Del. on July 14, 2020. Katie Glueck and Lisa Friedman report that “Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced on Tuesday a new plan to spend $2 trillion over four years to significantly escalate the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors, part of a suite of sweeping proposals designed to create economic opportunities and build infrastructure while also tackling climate change.” Specifically, Biden’s plan calls for the realization of “an emissions-free power sector by 2035, “enhancing the nation’s infrastructure,” significantly cutting fossil fuel emissions,” “upgrading four million buildings,” “establishing an office of environmental and climate justice at the Department of Justice and developing a broad set of tools to address how ‘environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color,’” and “encouraging “the installation of millions of new solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines. (https://nytimes.com/2020/07/14/politics/biden-climate-plan.html).
Friedman and Glueck further learned “from senior Biden campaign officials that the proposal was the product of discussions with scientists, climate and environmental justice leaders, union members and leaders, mayors and governors, and representatives from the small-business and manufacturing communities.” The new plan is more ambitious that Biden’s original climate proposal, which “called for spending $1.7 trillion over ten years with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions before 2050. The new blueprint significantly increases the amount of money and accelerates the timetable to four years.” The plan also “promises new research funding and tax incentives for carbon-capture technology.” Campaign officials told reporters that funding for the plan “will come from a mix of increasing the corporate income tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, ‘asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share’ and some still undetermined amount of stimulus dollars.”
Climate Crisis worsens: some more evidence
Rising, record-breaking temperatures
European researchers at the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) document that the 12-month period ending in June 2020 “tied with the hottest year on record based on global surface temperatures, as reported by Jessica Corbett. (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/07/arctic-burns-new-data-shows-june-2020-capped-year-tied-hot).
In another article, Jessica Corbett reports on a study published in the journal Scientific Reports,” in which in June “researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom examined CO2 levels in past period of earth’s environment that were close to what is being experienced now” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/09/humanity-track-soon-hit-15oc-paris-accord-limit-atmospheric-co2-nears-level-not-seen).
They examined CO2 levels during the late Pliocene about three million years ago, as co-author Thomas Chalks explained when “the warmest part of the Pliocene had been between 280 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.” This is like “today’s value of around 415 parts per million.” However, when CO2 levels peaked during the Pliocene, “temperatures were 3degreesC to 4degreesC hotter and seas were 65 feet higher” than today. The implication is that contemporary temperatures and sea rise are already set to rise considerably more than they have – at present CO2 levels. But CO2 levels are now rising “about 2.5 ppm per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3 million years,” that is, rising to a CO2 level of 427 or so.
Corbett also refers to a new report released on June 9 by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) “about global temperatures likely coming in the next five years provoked similar alarm and demands.” The WMO projects “there is about a 70% chance that one or more months during” the years 2020-2024 “will be at least 1.5°C hotter than pre-industrial levels and about a 20% chance that one of the next five years will be at least that warm.” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas released a statement on June 9 emphasizing that “WMO has repeatedly stressed that the industrial and economic slowdown from Covid-19 is not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action,” Taalas said. “Due to the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the impact of the drop in emissions this year is not expected to lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric concentrations which are driving global temperature increases.”
Taalas’s statement continued: “Whilst Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems, and economies for centuries. Governments should use the opportunity to embrace climate action as part of recovery program and ensure that we grow back better.” We now must view the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity “to pursue bold recovery plans that incorporate policies that combat the climate crisis, such as rapidly transitioning to renewable energy worldwide.” This would be in tune with the recommendations of the Paris agreement on climate change target “of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.”
An increase in “humid heat extremes”
Climate Central reports that “humid heat extremes” are on the rise in the US (https://medialibrary.climatecentral.org/resources/humid-heat-extremes-on-the-rise). The evidence is derived from “hourly wet bulb temperature data…collected from Raymond et al. (2020), using 474 contiguous U.S. weather stations for this analysis.” In addition: “For humid heat extremes in each location, the change in frequency was found by calculating the value that happened (on average) on 5% of days in the 1980s and 1990s, and then seeing how often that happened in the 2000s and 2010s.” Wet bulb temperatures are high temperatures combined with high humidity, or as the article puts it, “on extreme wet bulb temperatures, which measure how heat, moisture, and other factors affect the body in direct sunlight.”
The researchers “analyzed the most extreme (top 5% of) days by U.S. location, based on wet bulb temperatures. In most places, these humid heat extremes doubled in frequency from 1980-1999 to 2000-2019.” For example:
“In most states and regions, these humid heat extremes have already doubled in frequency—when comparing 2000-2019 to the previous two decades. In other words, conditions on the muggiest 18 days of the year (on average in 1980-99) may now occur on 36 days or more. All but one region has seen these frequencies double, and all but one state has risen by 50%. Parts of New England and the inland West have increased by 2.5 times.”
The impact has disproportionately affected “senior citizens and communities of color, as well as outdoor workers in agriculture and the military.” Climate Central’s report says that continued climate change that is associated with a rise in such humid heat extremes will “lead to declines in labor productivity, while worsening social and economic inequities.” They add: “Outdoor activities are all but impossible when the wet bulb reaches 90°F (equivalent to a 132°F heat index), but much lower values are still dangerous.
It will take extraordinary governmental efforts to keep people safe from the hot, humid, days that will inevitably occur if the US and other countries remain stuck in fossil-fuel – high carbon emission – energy systems. Cooling centers will have to be increased for the vulnerable segments of the population and those with air-conditioners will see their “cooling costs rise.” The accompanying energy-demand will soar to unprecedented levels. If the US and other countries have not soon made a transition away from fossil fuels, then, under increasingly deadly heat, the use of fossil fuels could increase and thus, insanely, lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and further rising temperatures. This would be like a contract with the devil with an increasingly hellish outcome. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic is having the effect of increasing the size of vulnerable populations, while state and local governments are sinking deeply into debt and are cutting back on services.
Hot weather and fires in the Arctic
One of the manifestations of this trend is that there were “unprecedented heat and fires that ravaged Siberia last month” (May 2020). The average temperatures “over all land in Arctic Siberia combined was more than five degrees above normal, and more than a degree higher than in 2018 and 2019, the two previous warmest Junes.” The C3S director Carlo Buontempo finds it worrisome “that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world,” that “Western Siberia experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures so long during the winter and spring is unusual,’ and that “the exceptionally high temperatures in Arctic Siberia that have occurred now in June 2020 are equally a cause for concern” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/07/arctic-burns-new-data-shows-june-2020-capped-year-tied-hot).
Bridget Read reports that Siberia is experiencing “record warm temperatures, melting sea ice, and massive wildfires”(https://thecut.com/2020/07/the-arctic-is-on-fire-siberia-terrifying.html). Change is happening faster than expected and faster than the rest of the world. She adds: “Siberian towns are experiencing a heat wave throughout the region, with many smashing centuries-old temperature records, records that are now being broken year after year. Scientists say that the area is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world, due to a phenomenon called ‘Arctic amplification,’ in which melting ice exposes more dark sea and lake waters, turning zones that were once net heat-reflecting into heat-absorbing. And temperatures rise even more.” It works this way. Record temperatures melt snow create “dry vegetation for wildfires.” The wildfires send out “giant plumes of smoke and release more greenhouse gases than ever before.” Some of the fires are known as “zombie fires” that continue to burn under the snow during the winter and erupt in the air when the snow melts.
There are other effects. The melting Arctic ice “contributes to sea level rise and irregular weather patterns around the world.” Most worrisome is that the high temperatures melt the permafrost in the Arctic, which is a “layer of continuous ice that covers nearly a quarter of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere.” There are “approximately 1,460 billion to 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon” in the permafrost, representing “more than twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere, which, if released, would raise the earth’s temperature and its myriad effects beyond human intervention.
Jeff Berardelli, in an article for CBS News, reports on what is happening in the alarmingly “heat scorched Siberia on Saturday [June 20, 2020]” in “the small town of Verkhoyansk (67.5°N latitude) reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 32 degrees above the normal high temperature. If verified, this is likely the hottest temperature ever recorded in Siberia and also the hottest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle, which begins at 66.5°N” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/arctic-records-its-hottest-temperature-ever). The town is located “3,000 miles east of Moscow and further north than even Fairbanks, Alaska.” It is “typically one of the coldest spots on Earth.” For example, “[t]his past November, the area reached nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, one of the first spots to drop that low in the winter of 2019-2020.” However, now in June, the temperature in Verkhoyansk has reached near 100 degrees.
The high temperatures, the wildfires, the melting ice, are all the result of “heat trapping greenhouse gases that result, by and large, from the burning of fossil fuels and feedback loops.” The rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels have reflected in environmental disruptions and anomalies across the earth, but in the Arctic the warming is “more than two times the average rate of the globe.”Berardelli points out that this “is leading to the decline of sea ice, and in some cases snow cover, due to rapidly warming temperatures.” The corroborating evidence is indisputable. “Over the past four decades, sea ice volume has decreased by 50%. The lack of white ice, and corresponding increase in dark ocean and land areas, means less light is reflected and more is absorbed, creating a feedback loop, and heating the area disproportionately.” But the heating of the earth is global in scope and, as fossil fuels are burned, there will be more frequent and more intense heat waves everywhere. Scientists say that, to avoid the worst climate-related outcomes, we must phase out the use of fossil fuels and do it quickly.
Recent legal setbacks for fossil fuel interests
Heather Hansman reports on three court decisions in the early part of July on pipelines that went against fossil fuel interests (https://www.outsideonline.com/2415467/acp-keystone-pipeline-protest-wins; July 9, 2020). She opens her article with the following succinct summary.
“Over a span of two days earlier this week, there were three big wins for environmental groups fighting controversial natural gas pipeline projects. On Sunday [July 5], Dominion Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), citing delays and rising costs. And on Monday [July 6], District Judge James E. Boasberg ordered a shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on the grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately assessing the risks. The same day, the Supreme Court stayed an order to halt construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline because it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.”
Hansman also makes the point that the opposition that has a significant influence on the courts was laid over the six years before the court decisions. Specifically: “Opposition to all three pipelines has largely been led by the Indigenous and Black communities that would be hardest hit by the pipelines’ pollution and risk. For six years, the residents of Union Hill, Virginia, a town founded by freed slaves, fought an ACP compressor station that would have kicked toxic air pollution into their neighborhoods, filing suit against Dominion for the threat. More than a thousand miles away, at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, DAPL protestors repeatedly stood their ground as rubber bullets and tear gas flew through the freezing air, physically holding their right to the land, as their lawyers brought suits about that pipeline’s damages.”
The decisions, Hansman notes, is that the Trump administrration’s aggressive pushing for “a deregulated, industry-friendly energy-production agenda, shoddily planned, dangerous, and unnecessary fossil-fuel projects don’t hold up in the courts or at the banks.” But more importantly, she maintains, it is “a confirmation of the power of organizing and of staying the course in the intertwined fight for racial and climate justice.” On this point, Hansman quotes Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer of Keep It in the Ground for the Indigenous Environmental Network, who says: “They’re all wins that wouldn’t have happened if people hadn’t gotten out into the street to make it public. It shows you that this works. It’s definitely a win for people.” Patrick Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, “says
If nothing else, “[a]ll these legal cases slow down the process and, ideally, make sure the voices of constituents are considered.” And there are economic realities that are making “natural gas…less necessary and those jobs could be better filled in a more sustainable industry, one that doesn’t threaten the community that supports it.” And renewable energy alternatives are becoming real practical alternatives. Hansman writes: “Last month a study from the University of California at Berkeley found that 90 percent of U.S. electricity could be emission-free by 2035, in part by slashing natural-gas use by 70 percent.” In June 2020, Patrick Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center “says that Virginia and North Carolina, which were scheduled to start new natural gas projects, “already have a glut, and both states recently signed sweeping carbon-reduction goals, so there was no need and no desire.” Changes in the administration of the law are necessary, but “most of their legal work was elevating the voices of the communities that would be impacted by the pipeline.” He continues: “Without people caring about this, nothing happens. When Dominion planned it, I think they thought they could steamroll and grease the political wheel, but that didn’t happen. I hope it inspires people to speak up. It shows that sometimes David can beat Goliath.”
(Also check out Bill McKibben’s article on the court decisions that went against fossil fuel companies in The New Yorker on July 8, 2020: https://newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/its-been-an-awful-week-for-the-fossil-fuel-industry, and Hiroko Tobuche and Brad Plumer’s article in The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/climate/dakota-access-keystone-atlantic-pipelines.html.)
Declining profits and fearful investors
It is news when two of the world’s largest energy companies, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, publicly admit that they will not be able to sell the volume of oil and natural gas products that they have predicted. This is the gist of the news story on July 2 by Nicholas Kusnetz for Inside Climate News (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/01072020/bp-shell-coronavirus-climate-change). Specifically: “This week, Royal Dutch Shell said it would slash the value of its oil and gas assets by up to $22 billion amid a crash in oil prices. The announcement came two weeks after a similar declaration by BP, saying it would reduce the value of its assets by up to $17.5 billion. Both companies said the accounting moves were a response not only to the coronavirus-driven recession, but also to global efforts to tackle climate change.” Here are additional details.
“BP said in mid-June that it expects governments will accelerate a transition to low-carbon energy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, and that the two forces together had compelled the company to revise its long-term outlook for oil and gas demand. As a result, BP said, it would need to cut the value of its assets by between $13 billion and $17.5 billion, and that it may never develop some of its prospective projects.
“Shell had already lowered its long-term outlook at the end of last year. This week, it released a more pessimistic projection for oil demand over the next few years too. The company also said the cuts to its refining asset values would “support the decarbonization of its energy product mix.” The biggest hit to Shell’s books came in its investments in liquefied natural gas, which the company hopes can still play a growing role in global energy needs. Those assets are now worth up to $9 billion less than Shell had hoped, the company said.
“Both companies announced this year they would aim to eliminate or cancel out their direct greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.”
Kusnetz quotes Andrew Logan, “senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a sustainable business advocacy group that has represented major investors in their engagement with oil companies.” Logan is quoted as follows: “I think we may look back on this as the turning point, the moment the industry finally started to say that real assets with real dollar figures associated with them are likely to be ‘stranded'”—or left undeveloped—”in a decarbonizing world. This is a huge turnaround from the industry’s previous stance, which had been that no existing assets were likely to be stranded, that there may be risks in the future, but not in the here and now. That acknowledgment, that the risk is real and it’s here in the present, is a really big deal.”
In the US, the tune is different so far. US energy corporations like “ExxonMobil and other US-based companies, are holding the line and “generally have indicated they believe global oil demand is likely to continue to grow for many years.” But business is not good. In May, “Bottom of FormExxon announced $2.9 billion in write-downs that the company attributed to lower oil prices.”
Andrew Grant, head of oil, gas and mining at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial think tank, told Kusnetiz that “the write-downs are likely a combination of corporate spin and real change.” Grant also “we’re likely seeing the beginning of a process he has warned about for years, when companies need to reconcile with a future of less fossil fuel demand by admitting they’re not worth as much as they once were. And, he added, they still have a long way to go.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, its detrimental effects on “clean energy,” but there is some optimism as well
Kate S. Petersen documents the harm being done to “clean energy” by the pandemic in an article for Daily Climate titled, “Beyond the “silver lining” of emissions reductions. The title of her article: “Clean energy takes a COVID-19 hit” (https://www.dailycom.org/covid-19-renewable-energy-2646372644.html). Much of this has to do with the policies advanced by Trump and his administration. On the one hand, they promote the interests of the big fossil-fuel companies through deregulation, lower taxes, the opening up of public land to fossil fuel extraction, the expansion of pipelines for natural gas, and the building of liquid-natural-gas export facilities. On the other hand, they do what they can to discourage the development of solar and wind power, renewables generally, and the infrastructure that would support the advance of such energy systems.
Peterson begins her analysis with an example of how the pandemic has affected policy in the state of Washington. “In early March,” she writes, “the Washington state legislature passed a community solar incentives bill meant to help meet renewable energy goals and increase low-income communities’ access to solar technology.” She continues: “The bill, HB 2248, enjoyed widespread stakeholder support; environmental justice groups, renewable energy coalitions, and utility companies were all on board.” But then Covid-19 began to have an impact in the state, when, in the day after the bill was passed, “Washington Governor Jay Inslee shut down public schools in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.” [And] “Over the next few weeks, as businesses were shuttered, and a stay-at-home order was issued and then extended, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic would not be easily contained and that the loss to human life and economic stability would be far-reaching.” As a result of the economic impact of the pandemic, the governor vetoed HB 2248 in early April, justifying his action that funding in the state budget “really needed to go toward the most essential state services.”
According to Peterson, the “fate of the Washington state solar bill is a microcosm of what economists and industry groups say is a profound and nationwide disruption to renewable energy development and progress toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals. In stark contrast to the “silver lining” stories of short-term emissions reductions related to stay-at-home orders, experts say that job losses and declining investments are hampering U.S. strides toward a clean energy future.” The problems of the renewable industry are reflected in “investment declines” and job losses.
Declining investment in clean energy
With respect of declines in clean energy investment, she relies on the work of a team of researchers led by Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham. They have “attempted to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 related disturbances to renewable energy investments on long-term greenhouse gas emissions.” Gillingham’s team is seeing “declines in air pollution and improvements in air quality” as the lockdowns in some states occurred,” but at the same time recognized “the pretty substantial innovation we’ve been seeing in clean energy over the past few years is being slowed.” The team finds “that smaller, less established renewable energy businesses may be forced to close, and others, such as automotive companies, would slow or suspend development and production of clean energy technology as the market declines. Public electric car charging station construction could also be slowed.” Additionally: “By the end of 2020, global electric vehicles sales are expected to contract to 43 percent of 2019 levels. Further, as Americans face reduced or eliminated incomes, they are less likely to invest in rooftop solar or make energy efficiency modifications to their homes.”
Job Losses in clean energy sectors
Even before the pandemic was acknowledged by government officials across the country and even as Trump and his administration dismissed the emergent signs of a pandemic as a hoax, of little significance, likely to vanish momentarily like a puff of smoke, “[c]lean energy workers are already feeling the slump.” But the job losses have mounted during the unfolding of this massive health crisis. Peterson cites “a June 15 analysis of the BW Research Partnership, a company that tracks business trends [that] reported that 620,590 U.S. renewable energy employees have lost their jobs since the pandemic began,” representing a loss of 18 percent of jobs in the industry. This occurred despite the “many companies [that] were able to avoid layoffs due to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federal program that grants forgivable loans to small companies to help them retain employees during COVID-19 related shutdowns” and despite the extension of program by Congress to August 8.” The future of the industry and related job prospects depends on how long the pandemic persists and on related government policy. However, even with the PPP program, the job losses in clean energy have been enormous.
Peterson cites a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “a U.S. trade group that lobbies for solar to meet 20 percent of U.S. energy needs by 2030, reported that the job losses caused by the pandemic have undone five years’ worth of industry gains, with 38 percent fewer workers employed than forecast before COVID-19.” Also, according to SEIA, “new solar installation is 37 percent below projection for 2020, a number that represents a loss of infrastructure that could power 288,000 homes and an economic investment of $3.2 billion.”
“Policy action could change the whole story”
Despite the bleak data, “Gillingham says that policy intervention ‘could make a pretty massive difference.’” His optimism is fueled by that facts that government support and private investment in solar and wind energy could put many millions of people to work. And, on July 1, “the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, a bill intended to reestablish economic stability during the pandemic by investing in infrastructure and creating jobs. It has some provisions that support renewable energy development. Groups such as SEIA as well as Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement, praised the effort as a step in the right direction, but the latter groups said much more investment was needed to secure a clean energy future.” However: “In a press release, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the bill, calling it ‘the cousin of the Green New Deal’ and stating that ‘this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate.’” Thus, any support for clean energy will require a political change in the presidency and the US Congress. And Trump, the Republicans, their corporate allies will use all their power to see this does not happen.
There is no doubt that the planet and US are getting hotter. There is no doubt that fossil fuels are the greatest source of this existential problem. There is no doubt that Trump supports the continuation and expansion of the industry. There is no doubt that, if this malicious narcissist is reelected, the climate crisis will worsen. There is no doubt that the effects of the climate crisis have already contributed significantly to increasing societal instability and suffering. There is no doubt that governments have little time to mitigate and reverse the climate crisis. Biden and the Democrats may offer some hopeful proposals, but they will be saddled with multiple crises, a fragmented political system, powerful right-wing forces, and Trump’s “base.” Then there is the conservative Supreme Court. Well, withal, I’ll let Bill McKibben have the last word. Here is what Bill writes at the end of his book Falter.
“So, yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of life – in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that. We could instead put a solar panel on the top of every last one of those roofs that I described in the opening of this book, and if we do, then we will have started in the right direction.”
“We have the tools (nonviolence chief among them) to allow us to stand up to the powerful and reckless, and we have the fundamental idea of human solidarity that we could take as our guide.”
“We are messy creatures, often selfish, prone to short-sightedness, susceptible to greed. In a Trumpian moment with racism and nationalism resurgent, you could argue that our disappearance would be not great loss. And yet, most of us, most of the time, are pretty wonderful, funny, kind. Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth, and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die.
“Even -especially – in its twilight, the human game is graceful and compelling” (pp. 255-256).