Bob Sheak, May 26, 2021
The climate crisis intensifies, while meaningful political solutions are elusive
The Debate in the U.S.
There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. concerning global warming. (I will use the terms global warming and climate change interchangeably.) On the one hand, there are those who support the view that global warming is real, a growing problem, while at the same time proposing remedies. On the other hand, there are those who reject or dismiss it, and, in some cases, offer inadequate “solutions.”
Those who acknowledge the growing climate crisis
The first position is based on authoritative and verifiable evidence, based largely on ongoing empirical research and observations. This position enjoys the overwhelming support of climate scientists. The well-documented and accumulating evidence reveals that temperature continues to rise and that rising temperatures are the result of greenhouse gases from human activities being trapped and accumulating mostly in the upper troposphere, about 12 miles high in the atmosphere. The gases reduce the amount of the the sun’s ultra-violet rays (heat) that are reflected back from earth to space. The earth’s temperature thus rises. The effects are reflected in a multitude of increasingly harmful impacts on myriad aspects of human societies and nature.
Many who hold the scientific, empirically based view remain optimistic that comprehensive and coordinated domestic and international efforts to stem and reverse the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can be achieved. This optimism is, however, not yet warranted yet by the facts.
The deniers and deflects, etc.
One of the great challenges is that, despite the evidence, there are powerful political, economic, and cultural forces in the U.S. that reject the science and oppose effective action to address this multifaceted problem. Some deny the scientific findings that global warming is happening and look to a handful of “scientists” and a vast political networks of think tanks, lobbyists, the Republican Party, and right-wing media to rally support for their view. Some accept the evidence but say that it would be too economically costly to spend government resources on the problem. Some hope that there will be technological solutions to solve the problem (e.g., geoengineering). Some accept the reality of global warming but propose inadequate solutions that do not undermine the fossil-fuel interests. Some accept there is warming but claim it has to do with the effects of sun spots and not from human activity. Consequently, there is nothing much that can be done here on earth, except to wait for the sun’s activity to diminish. Others contend that, on balance, global warming is a good thing and that the warming of the earth will spur the growth of some floras and agriculture.
Waging a war against the climate
In his new book, The New Climate War, climate scientist Michael E. Mann states that “our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not taking the measures necessary to avert the largest global crisis we have ever faced.” In order to address this situation, “we must understand the mind of the enemy” (p. 1). The enemy includes the fossil-fuel corporations (e.g., ExxonMobil, Shell, BP) and their supporters, the billionaire plutocrats “like the Koch brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes,” who have “funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign beginning in the least 1980s and working to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil-fuel burning” (pp. 2-3). This enemy additionally includes those in government in the U.S. and abroad who deny or dismiss the seriousness of global warming and use their positions to protect and advance the interests of the fossil-fuel industry and other polluters.
Mann finds that the climate denial tends now to be “more in the form of downplaying the impacts rather than outright denial of the basic physical evidence” (p. 42). He gives the example of how Trump deflected attention from the part that global warming played in the extensive wildfires that have been afflicting California. The then president did so by disparaging state officials and “blaming them for ‘gross mismanagement’ of the forests, attributing the problem specifically to an absence of ‘raking’ of forests” (p. 42).
“The forces of inaction – that is, the fossil fuel interests and those doing their bidding – have a single goal – inaction,” Mann contends. He continues: “The most hard-core contingent – the deniers – are…in the process of going extinct (though there is still a remnant population of them). They are being replaced by other breeds of deceivers, namely, downplayers, deflectors, dividers, delayers, and doomers – willing participants in a multiprongred strategy seeking to deflect blame, divide the public, delay action by promoting ‘alternative’ solutions that don’t actually solve the problem, or insist we simply accept our fate – it’s too late to do anything about it anyway, so we might as well keep the oil flowing.” This is the new climate war (p. 44).
Evidence of Climate change/global warming accumulates
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is one of the world’s most authoritative sources of evidence on global warming. In a series of reports on its website, NASA scientists and officials summarize the evidence, the causes, the future effects, and the scientific consensus that global warming is real, has a growing number of dire effects, and there is little time to contain or reverse it (https://climate.nasa.gov).
“Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.
“The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause Earth to warm in response.
“Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. Carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.”
The global temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, driven “largely by increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and other human activities.” NASA continues: “Most of the warming occurred in the past 40 years, with the most seven most recent years being the warmest.”
According to NASA data, “2016 and 2020 are tied for the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 141-year record have occurred since 2005, with the seven most recent years being the warmest.
The ocean has been warming, “with the top 100 meters (about 328 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit… since 1969.” The ocean has also been acidifying, absorbing between “between 20% and 30% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in recent decades (7.2 to 10.8 billion metric tons per year).”
Ice sheets are shrinking. Between 1993 and 2019, “Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year.” Glaciers are retreating “almost everywhere around the world – including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa.” The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere “has decreased over the past five decades and the snow is melting earlier.”
Global sea level is rising and has rise “about 8 inches…in the last century, and the rate of increase has accelerated in the last two decades. Arctic Sea Ice is declining rapidly both in its extent and thickness over the last several decades.
There have been a record number of high temperature events in the United States and the number has been increasing, including the “increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.”
NASA refers to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nation. The report “concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.” NASA specifies that “the industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 414 parts per million in the last 150 years.” There is a “better than 95 percent probability “that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.”
Future effects of global warming
The NASA also refers to how scientists “have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities, and that they forecast “a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit” by the end of the century. Societies will be disrupted, if not crumble, in temperatures above even 2-3 degrees. If current trends continue, there will each year be more droughts and heat waves, hurricanes will become more frequent, stronger and more intense, sea level will rise between 1-8 feet by 2100, and “the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council adds the following information on the immediacy of the problem (https://nrdc.org/stories/global-warming-101).
“Now climate scientists have concluded that we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040 if we are to avoid a future in which everyday life around the world is marked by its worst, most devastating effects: the extreme droughts, wildfires, floods, tropical storms, and other disasters that we refer to collectively as climate change. These effects are felt by all people in one way or another but are experienced most acutely by the underprivileged, the economically marginalized, and people of color, for whom climate change is often a key driver of poverty, displacement, hunger, and social unrest.”
Additionally, a recent study commissioned by the Pentagon warns of a scenario in which electricity, water, and food systems might collapse by midcentury as a result of the effects of climate change” (Mann, p. 44).
A scientific consensus
Most climate scientists agree that global warming is a profoundly serious and growing problem. According to NASA, “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals1 show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree” with the following: “Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”
They refer to 18 American Scientific societies, including, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the
American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America. They include in their list the U.S. National Academy of Science, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a reference to nearly 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action (http://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html).
Additional evidence: Selected examples
Rising temperatures everywhere
Bob Berwyn reports on new studies that “sharpen warnings for unlivable heat in the tropics, and nearly unthinkable extremes in major Northern Hemisphere cities” (https://insideclimatechange.org/news/16052021/extreme-heat-risks-climate-change). At the same time, “many regions are doing little to protect vulnerable populations.”
The findings were presented at the European Geosciences Union online conference in April. They suggest “that many models are underestimating the short-term threat to the most vulnerable areas—densely populated tropical regions—and that the threats aren’t clearly communicated. And a study released in late April showed that, in the U.S., the risk of power failures during such heatwaves could increase the death toll.”
“One of the studies presented at the conference,” Berwyn points out, “shows that parts of Southern Europe are particularly vulnerable, with heat deaths projected to increase by 7.9 percent in Spain through 2050 if global warming continues at its current pace, but only by half that much if global warming can be capped at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, as prescribed by the Paris climate pact.”
In the first week of May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its Climate Indicators website, which had been delayed for years by the Trump administration. The data shows “that major U.S. cities experienced three times as many heat waves—four or more days with temperatures that should only occur every 10 years—in the 2010s as during the 1960s. The season in which heat waves occur has lengthened by 47 days. In addition to heat exhaustion, recent research also showed that extreme heat dramatically increases the chances of pre-term births.”
There were record high temperatures in April in central Eurasia and North Africa, “and a weather station on Crete reported by far the warmest April night on record in Europe, which never dropped below 87 degrees Fahrenheit.” Such heat levels, if persisting through nights, “compound the health threat of heat waves because humans can’t physically recover from scorching daytime temperatures if they don’t cool down after the sun goes down.”
However alarming the data, they may underestimate how extreme heat affects populations. Chloe Brimicombe, a University of Reading climate researcher thinks that the “growing health threats of extreme heat over populated areas are ‘not sufficiently captured’ by major reports and emergency databases, or communicated adequately by English-language media.” Nevertheless, the data are worrisome and the “worst heat wave impacts are ahead.”
The direst projections are for tropical regions in Africa and South Asia, where tens of millions of people are vulnerable to extreme heat. By 2070 in those regions, a combination of extreme heat and humidity will put about 1.5 billion people at risk. Deadly heat waves, formed by the combination of temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity in excess of 90 percent, will start happening annually in those areas, instead of every 25 years, with conditions lingering near that lethal threshold for weeks on end.” Brimicombe says “We are making the tropics unlivable. If warming continues unabated through 2050, ‘loads of people would die and it would lead to mass migration, and that is something we’re not really saying enough about.”
Even in the United States, “a 2019 study projected thousands of additional heat deaths in cities during the second half of the century, even if global warming is limited to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Fatalities increase even more steeply at higher levels of warming. The European Academy of Sciences projects up to 132,000 additional deaths by 2100 if warming exceeds 3.6 degrees Celsius.”
In North America and Europe, extreme heat by far is the biggest killer driven by global warming, Otto said. That may be the case worldwide, but it’s hard to know because heat deaths still aren’t accurately counted in parts of the developing world, including in Africa, she added.
The climate crisis displaced over 10 million people in past six months
This is the headline of Jessica Corbett’s article, citing figures from a new report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/03/17/climate-crisis-displaced-over-10-million-people-past-six-months). The IFRC is the world’s largest humanitarian network. The report is titled Responding to Disasters and Displacement in a Changing Climate (pdf), and draws data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
The report focuses “on internal displacement—meaning individuals who remain within their home countries.” However, it recognizes that “recent climate-related disasters have also generated calls for just and updated policies related to refugees.”
On March 17, the organization issued a call for urgent international action “to address the rising risk of climate-related displacement, highlighting data that shows disasters such as storms, droughts, fires, and floods internally displaced more than 10 million people from September to February.” There were, additionally, 2.3 million displacements related to conflict during this period.
Corbett quotes Helen Brunt of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who said, “Asia suffers much more than any other region from climate disaster-related displacements. These upheavals are taking a terrible toll on some of the poorest communities already reeling from the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The report includes eight overall recommendations:
Investment in and focus on local actors and local responders;
Meaningful community engagement and accountability;
A protection, gender and inclusion (PGI)-informed approach and response;
Strengthening national and branch level internal systems and capabilities;
Monitoring population movements in the context of both slow and sudden onset disasters;
Coordinating and promoting the centrality of durable solutions to displacement; and
Humanitarian diplomacy, and multi-stakeholder partnerships and coordination.
Brunt told Reuters “Things are getting worse as climate change aggravates existing factors like poverty, conflict, and political instability.” She also said that “The compounded impact makes recovery longer and more difficult: people barely have time to recover and they’re slammed with another disaster.”
Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, told Common Dreams that “Yes, we should invest in climate change adaptation and resilience measures, because it enables people to stay in place if they would like to. But we also need to understand that people are already on the move and will continue to be on the move, especially as climate change impacts increase in intensity and frequency.”
Corbett concludes her article with a statement on an analysis released last year by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics & Peace. The organization “found that as the global population climbs toward 10 billion by 2050, ecological disasters and armed conflict could forcibly displace about 10% of humanity.”
Drought in the Western U.S.
Severe Drought, Worsened by Climate Change, Ravages the American West
Reporting for The New York Times, Henry Fountain reports on how increasing heat and shifting weather patterns are intensifying wildfires and sharply reducing water supplies across the Southwest, the Pacific Coast and North Dakota (https://nytimes.com/2021/05/19/climate/drought.html). The entire region is in drought conditions. The sources of the drought are “warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, which are linked to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, where they trap the sun’s heat.”
Fountain quotes University of Colorado hydrologist Keith Mussleman: “These are regions that regularly go weeks without precipitation. And now we’re talking in some cases about months.” Indeed, “climate scientists now talk of an emerging “megadrought,” one that may rival those that occurred periodically over the past thousand years. Those Southwestern megadroughts, which were discovered by analyzing ancient tree rings, lasted decades — in one case, 80 years.”
The present drought poses an extreme challenge to farmers in New Mexico “who depend on irrigation water from the Rio Grande and other rivers.” The situation is the result of years of “warming temperatures, a failed rainy season last summer and low snowpack this winter,” all of which has “combined to reduce the state’s rivers to a relative trickle.”
Fountain emphasizes that the climate-change-driven drought “is ravaging not only New Mexico but the entire Western half of the United States, from the Pacific Coast, across the Great Basin and desert Southwest, and up through the Rockies to the Northern Plains.” He cites research findings from the United States Drought Monitor, which identifies “84 percent of the West is now in drought, with 47 percent rated as ‘severe’ or ‘extreme.’”
Here are examples from Fountain’s article. “In California, wells are drying up, forcing some homeowners to drill new ones that are deeper and costlier. Lake Mead, on the border of Arizona and Nevada, is so drained of Colorado River water that the two states are facing the eventual possibility of cuts in their supply. And 1,200 miles away in North Dakota, ranchers are hauling water for livestock and giving them supplemental forage, because the heat and dryness is stunting spring growth on the rangelands.
“The most significant, and potentially deadly, effect of a drought that is as severe and widespread as any seen in the West is the wildfires that are raging amid hot and dry conditions. And this is well before the full blast of summer’s heat arrives.
“California, Arizona and New Mexico have each had two large blazes, unusual for this early in the year. None has been fully contained, including the Palisades Fire, which has burned 1,200 acres on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
“Officials are predicting when the fire season ends — if it ever does, as warming conditions have made fires possible year-round in some areas — the total could exceed last year’s of 10.3 million acres.”
Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist and climate specialist for CBS News, also reports in an article for CBS News on April 12, 2021, on what some scientists are calling a “permanent drought” across the Western U.S. and others call a “megadrought.” It began 2000 and is the “second worst in 1,200 years” (http://cbsnews.com/news/drought-western-united-states-modern-history).
And, as the U.S. heads into the 2021 summer dry season, “the stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions, with widespread water restrictions expected and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.” Even before the summer begins,” Berardelli writes, “the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60% of the Western states under severe, extreme or exceptional drought.” He adds, “The reason for the extensive drought is two-fold; long-term drying fueled by human-caused climate change and, in the short term, a La Niña event in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters failed to fuel an ample fetch of moisture.”
He cites Kelsey Satalino, the Digital Communications Coordinator from NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System, who says that during the past few months, several states including Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah experienced their most intense period of drought since 2000 and, as a result, “soil moisture content is at its lowest levels in at least 120 years.”
“New research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that over the past several decades, precipitation has become more erratic and dry periods between rain storms have expanded. Even if rain or snow falls heavier, that’s less important than consistency. Soil moisture and vegetation thrive on precipitation that is spread out more evenly over time, rather than heavy events which tend to run-off, resulting in wasted moisture.
“At the same time, temperatures across the Western U.S. have increased by a few degrees over the past 50 years. The warmer air provides more heat energy to evaporate moisture from vegetation and soil. As a result, the ground continues to dry out, providing flammable fuel for escalating fire seasons.
“In fact, 2020 was the worst fire season in the modern history of the West, with California and Colorado experiencing their largest fires on record…. Simply put, the warmer and drier it gets, the larger fires become.” Moreover, the “fire season in the West is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago.”
Impacts on National Parks
Zoe Schlanger reviews evidence on the detrimental impacts of global warming on America’s national parks. With limited resources park officials are having to choose which of the parks or what in the parks can be saved (https://nytimes.com/2021/05/18/climate/national-parks-climate-change.html). The National Park Service “is conceding that its traditional goal of absolute conservation is no longer viable in many cases.”
In response to the changing conditions, the National Park Service published in late April “an 80-page document that lays out new guidance for park managers in the era of climate change.”
Schlanger writes: “The document, along with two peer-reviewed papers, is essentially a tool kit for the new world. It aims to help park ecologists and managers confront the fact that, increasingly, they must now actively choose what to save, what to shepherd through radical environmental transformation and what will vanish forever.” The service now is planning for “worst-case scenarios, decide what species and landscapes to prioritize, and how to assess the risk of relocating those that can’t survive otherwise.”
The finding by the National Park Service were “kept in a low profile during the Trump Administration, when the Park Service was at the center of frequent political battles.” In 2018, for example, Trump appointed managers tried to delete humanity’s role in climate change from a report on sea-level rise.”
This changed with the election of Biden: “The day before President Biden’s inauguration, they began publishing their papers, which were years in the making.”
Nonetheless, the situation is dire, with some leading researchers wondering “if the age of North American woodlands is coming to an end.” Such concern is reflected in research that “suggests, in the event of wildfires, “up to 30 percent of forestland might never grow back because global warming favors shrubs or grasslands in their ranges.”
Award-winning journalist Georgina Gustin writes on a research report by Forest Trends that documents “a 50 percent increase in deforestation of tropical woodlands, most of it for agriculture and much of it illegal, since the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19052021/deforestation-climate-change-forest-trends-companies-government).
The report was released on May 18, 2021. Forest Trends “tracks deforestation, legal and illegal, in 23 countries with large areas of tropical forests, including Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest. The research looks at the period, starting in 2014, when dozens of governments, organizations and companies signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it altogether by 2030.” Instead, deforestation via clear cutting has “increased by more than 50 percent” and commercial agriculture is driving most of the increase.Gustin quotes Cassie Dummett, one of the report’s lead authors, who says, “The scale of the increase in deforestation is really huge, and given all the commitments, is really disappointing and shocking Every year so much is being cleared, and when it’s for commodities, that means that the world’s consumers and governments are complicit.”
Gusten delves further into the sources of the problem, writing:
“Two countries, Brazil and Indonesia, suffered most of the forest losses driven by agriculture, the report found. In Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter of beef, nearly 95 percent of the conversion of woodlands to agricultural fields was done illegally.
“Most of that clearing was driven by a demand for exported commodities. In addition to beef, the biggest culprit throughout Latin America continues to be soy, largely for animal feed and destined for overseas markets, especially China, which has seen a surge in demand for meat. In Indonesia, the largest driver of deforestation continues to be palm oil, which finds its way into a wide array of commercial food and consumer products in markets around the world.
Deforestation has also been undertaken in increased rates due to regulatory rollbacks, “particularly in Brazil, where the government has “allowed both illegal and legal timber cuts to accelerate.” Speculators and “land laundering” have also played a part. Gustin explains: “The legal framework is often exploited, where a nexus of political and business elites are using commercial agriculture as a means of claiming ownership, and the land value increases massively when it’s transformed from forest to agricultural land.”
There have been some actions taken by governments and environmental groups.
Here are Gustin’s examples.
“Lawmakers in the United Kingdom are considering a law that would ban the import of any product linked to illegal deforestation. In the United States, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has said he will introduce legislation that would ban the import of products linked to illegal deforestation, and has called consuming products connected to such destruction of woodlands “immoral.”
“In March, nearly 30 environmental groups sent a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to put in place regulations that would restrict the import of agricultural products tied to deforestation.”
“Many conservation and environmental organizations are pushing governments to impose stricter requirements on imports and financial institutions to reduce deforestation.”
And yet, deforestation continues to increase.
Ice and snow cover melting in the Arctic
Kenny Stancil considers a report issued by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) on May 20, documenting that, over the past five decades, “the Arctic has warmed three times faster than the world as a whole, leading to rapid and widespread melting of ice and other far-reaching consequences that are important not only to local communities and ecosystems but to the fate of life on planet Earth” (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/05/20/real-hotspot-study-shows-arctic-warming-3-times-faster-rest-of-earth).
“According to the report,” Stancil writes, “the Arctic’s annual mean surface temperature surged by 3.1ºC between 1971 and 2019, compared with a 1ºC rise in the global average during the same time period. Arctic warming has been accompanied by a decrease in snow cover and sea and land ice; an increase in permafrost thaw and rainfall; and an uptick in extreme events.”
These changes are “adversely affecting the livelihoods and food security of Arctic communities, especially Indigenous ones…. [and] poses risks to unique terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems in the region, some of which are vulnerable to irreversible harm.” At the same time, the report found, “No one on Earth is immune to Arctic warming.” Consider the following examples.
“The rapid mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet and other Arctic land ice contributes more to global sea-level rise than does the melting of ice in Antarctica.” “Some projections estimate that by 2050, 150 million people worldwide will be displaced from their homes just by rising sea levels.” All of these conditions will be exacerbated by additional increases in the annual mean surface air temperatures in the Arctic, which are expected to “rise to 3.3–10°C above the 1985–2014 average by 2100, depending on the course of future emissions” – and could be higher. “Under most emission scenarios,” the report says, “the vast majority” of climate models ‘project the first instance of a largely sea-ice-free Arctic in September occurring before 2050,’ and possibly as early as 2040.
Biden’s initiative and the pushback against it
The argument that the climate crisis is real, that it is worsening, and that powerful interests are stopping or delaying adequate ameliorative response by governments and international organizations has been advanced in this post. There is also no doubt that, if the climate crisis is to be abated, the U.S. must play an important role in efforts to contain or reverse the crisis. But for the process to begin well, such efforts will be successful or not depending on how the domestic politics on global warming play out.
The U.S. lost ground during the last four years, as Trump and his administration did their best to deny and downplay the significance of the crisis, promoting the use of “clean coal” and fossil fuels, opening up offshore public land to drilling, ending an Obama’s fuel-efficiency executive action, supporting the export of oil and gas, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and appointing their allies to policy-making positions in federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to subvert the agencies.
Biden is now taking a completely different approach, as he and has administration take the climate crisis seriously and propose policies that, if ever passed by the Congress, would represent important steps in addressing the crisis.
The question in coming months is whether Biden and the Democrats in Congress can find ways to overcome the obstruction of Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Revitalizing U.S. climate policy vis executive action
Ella Nilsen reports on some of Biden’s early climate-related initiatives (https://vox.com/22242572/biden-climate-change-plan-explained).
On Wednesday [January 26, 2021], she writes, “Biden signed a set of executive actions meant to begin making this plan a reality. In them, he directed his administration to take a ‘whole-of-government approach’ to combat climate change, which includes — among other initiatives — ordering federal agencies to purchase electricity that is pollution-free, as well as zero emission vehicles, and directing the US Department of Interior to pause entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore.” Biden has also issued an executive order to have the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement and directed “his agencies to reverse a number of former President Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards.”
Nilsen refers to a few specific examples. The “Department of Housing and Urban Development will be able to implement new sustainability standards for newly constructed or upgraded affordable housing. It means that the Department of Transportation could be charged with setting up more charging stations for electric vehicles, or spend more money on public transportation. And it means that the Department of Agriculture tries to work with the nation’s farmers to reduce the emissions coming from livestock and soils — about 10 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.”
Biden’s policy initiative
In January, Biden also proposed a $2 trillion dollar “infrastructure” plan to achieve a 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. Then, on April 22, 2021, the Biden administration released a “fact sheet” elucidating what his climate plan is designed to accomplish (https://whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/staatements-releases/2021/04/22/fact-sheet-biden-sets-2030-greenhouse-gas-pollution-reduction-target).
In developing the plan, administration officials consulted “important and diverse stakeholders: From unions that collectively bargain for millions of Americans who have built our country and work to keep it running to groups representing tens of millions of advocates and young Americans, the Administration listened to Americans across the country. This also included groups representing thousands of scientists; hundreds of governmental leaders like governors, mayors, and tribal leaders; hundreds of businesses; hundreds of schools and institutions of higher education; as well as with many specialized researchers focused on questions of pollution reduction.”
In the process, according to the Fact Sheet, multiple pathways across the economy were explored for each economic sector of the economy that produces CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases: electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, and lands.
The fact sheet reiterates the promise of creating a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. To achieve such goals, Biden’s administration “analyzed how every sector of the economy can spur innovation, unleash new opportunities, drive competitiveness, and cut pollution. The target builds on leadership from mayors, county executives, governors, tribal leaders, businesses, faith groups, cultural institutions, health care organizations, investors, and communities who have worked together tirelessly to ensure sustained progress in reducing pollution in the United States.”
In implementing the plan – if supported by the U.S. Congress – the plan “offers an opportunity to support good-paying, union jobs, strengthen America’s working communities, protect public health, and advance environmental justice,” while also “empowering the U.S. to build more resilient infrastructure, expand access to clean air and drinking water, spur American technological innovations, and [to reiterate] create good-paying, union jobs along the way.”
The Fact Sheet identifies “line workers who will lay thousands of miles of transmission lines for a clean, modern, resilient grid; workers capping abandoned wells and reclaiming mines and stopping methane leaks; autoworkers building modern, efficient, electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure to support them; engineers and construction workers expanding carbon capture and green hydrogen to forge cleaner steel and cement; and farmers using cutting-edge tools to make American soil the next frontier of carbon innovation.”
“The United States can reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector by reducing tailpipe emissions and boosting the efficiency of cars and trucks; providing funding for charging infrastructure; and spurring research, development, demonstration, and deployment efforts that drive forward very low carbon new-generation renewable fuels for applications like aviation, and other cutting-edge transportation technologies across modes. Investment in a wider array of transportation infrastructure, including transit, rail, and biking improvements, will make more choices available to travelers.”
Example: Forests and Agriculture
“The United States can reduce emissions from forests and agriculture and enhance carbon sinks through a range of programs and measures including nature-based solutions for ecosystems ranging from our forests and agricultural soils to our rivers and coasts. Ocean-based solutions can also contribute towards reducing U.S. emissions.”
Can Biden’s climate plan be achieved?
The question is whether Biden and the Democrats in Congress can find ways to overcome the obstruction of Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Lisa Friedman writes on this situation in an article titled “It’s Crunch Time and Biden’s Climate Gambit Faces Steep Hurdles” (https://nytimes.com/climate/clean-electricity-climate.html). Friedman states the issue as follows.
“The linchpin of President Biden’s climate plan faces a perilous path through the Congress, as scientists say nations must move now to aggressively reduce the pollution that is heating the planet and the United States is trying to reassert a leadership role in that global effort.
Among the many components of Biden’s plan, Friedman focuses on one component, which she identifies as an important test cast for whether there will be any of his multifaceted plan ultimately passed into law. On this score, she writes
“The central tool of Mr. Biden’s plan, known as a clean electricity standard, would require power companies to gradually ratchet up the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar and other sources until they’re no longer emitting carbon dioxide.”
Some version of this approach has been approved by 29 states. However, Friedman argues, it would take adroit maneuvering by Democrats in the U.S. Senate to push a nationwide standard through the divided Senate. That, she says, may require “a fast-track maneuver known as budget reconciliation, which allows some bills to pass with a simple majority.” This “would require the support of all 50 Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the state second only to Wyoming in coal production.” Thus far, Friedman reports, Machin “has been noncommittal when it comes to a clean electricity standard.” The position of Republicans is that “forcing utilities to turn away from coal, oil and gas will mean higher electric bills” and they oppose the standard.
Whatever the outcome, this year may be “the last best chance for the world to get on a legitimate track,” according to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now Mr. Biden’s global climate envoy.
Aside from the politics, there are some reasons to be mildly optimistic on the chances of the clean electricity standard to garner wide support, if not passage into law. Friedman refers to: (1) how wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and natural gas; (2) Americans “are witnessing the real-time consequences of climate-fueled disasters like wildfires in California and stronger hurricanes battering their communities”; (3) “Democrats are more unified around tackling climate change than a decade ago”; and (4) “Mr. Biden won the White House based in part on a promise to enact the most aggressive climate agenda in history.” In addition, (5) “some major utilities are for the first time rallying around the idea of a clean electricity standard.” On the latter point, Friedman notes that in recent weeks “13 publicly owned utilities announced support for an aggressive measure that would eliminate 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions from the sector by 2030” and “the Edison Electric Institute, which represents privately owned utilities and whose former president opposed a renewable energy standard in 2007, said it now supports a ‘well-designed’ policy.”
There are problematic aspects of Biden’s “clean energy standard” policy. The administration has suggested that the standard may “include nuclear energy and incorporate technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, both of which are anathema to the liberal/progressive advocates for greening the economy and society. Friedman reports that “progressives have indicated they will fight any measure that includes anything other than renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal power.”
To illustrate her point, she quotes Mitchell Jones, policy director at Food and Water Watch, one of more than 600 environmental group that signed a May 12 letter to House and Senate leaders rejecting gas “with or without carbon capture sequestration” and what it called other “false solutions” like nuclear.
Finally, Friedman notes that electricity generation is responsible for only 25 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. in 2019, while “the transportation sector produced about 29 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Manufacturing and industry produced another 23 percent. Commercial and residential buildings were responsible for 13 percent, and agriculture contributed 10 percent.” The point is that the debate on the proposed clean energy standard, as politically controversial as it is, addresses only a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
The climate crisis, reflected most basically in rising temperatures that result from greenhouse gas emissions, is a growing problem across the world, including in the U.S. The solution to the problem is ultimately international, although the U.S. could – and needs to – serve as a major model, facilitator, innovator, subsidizer, and investor if there is to be international success.
However, because the climate diners and detractors have so much political and economic power in the U.S., even modest climate-directed initiatives are in question. But there are even more basic questions about whether a capitalist economy based on the interests of shareholders, profit, and growth, can ever be reformed or transformed enough to begin the process of containing and reducing the climate crisis. So far, the U.S. and the nations of the world have done a poor job in finding ways to significantly curtail the climate crisis.
Thus, whether the Biden administration and the Democrats in the U.S. Congress can navigate their way through the political muddle in Washington to achieve meaningful changes is, disturbingly, an open question.