Tag Archives: climate change

“Green” investment funds spring back

An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, California, U.S. on December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ross Kerber
May, 2017

BOSTON (Reuters) – After U.S. President Donald Trump’s election last November, investors pulled nearly $68 million (53 million pounds) from so-called “green” mutual funds, reflecting fear that his pro-coal agenda would hurt renewable energy firms.

But now investors are pouring money back in, boosting net deposits in 22 green funds to nearly $83 million in the first four months of 2017, according to data from Thomson Reuters’ Lipper unit.

Investors’ renewed faith in the funds reflects a growing belief the president will not succeed in reviving the coal industry and will not target the government subsidies that underpin renewable power, which have bipartisan support.

It also sends a positive sign for the wind, solar and energy efficiency firms and make up a large portion of the green-fund portfolios.

The coal industry faces problems in the marketplace that are too big for any government to solve, said Murray Rosenblith, a portfolio manager for the $209 million New Alternatives Fund, among the U.S. green funds seeing investor inflows.

“Trump can’t bring back coal,” he said. “There’s nothing that can bring it back.”

A Reuters survey of some 32 utilities in Republican states last month showed that none plan to increase coal use as a result of Trump’s policies. Many planned to continue a shift to cheaper and cleaner alternatives, including wind and solar.

A White House official did not respond to a request for comment about the administration’s efforts to boost coal or its position on wind and solar subsidies.

Lipper classifies “green” funds as those with screening or investment strategies that are based solely on environmental criteria. Many make it a point to avoid purchasing shares of traditional oil, gas or mining companies.

For a graphic showing the turnaround in green-fund investments, see: http://tmsnrt.rs/2qPISl4

The funds, while still an investment niche, have become increasingly popular over the past decade amid rising worries about climate change. They tend to draw younger and more environmentally minded investors who see profits in the burgeoning renewable power industry.

“Solar and wind power are creating a lot of jobs. There is a long-term secular trend taking place,” said Joe Keefe, Chief Executive of Pax World Management LLC, whose $418 million Pax Global Environmental Markets fund is one of the biggest in the green fund sector.

Solar firms employed about 374,000 workers in 2016, while the wind industry employed 101,738. Combined, they produced job growth of about 25 percent over 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The average fund among the group of 22 green funds tracked by Lipper posted a six-month return of 9.37 percent. That lagged the S&P 500 index’s 12.14 percent, excluding dividends, over the same period through April 30, but beat the S&P’s oil and gas index, along with several major coal companies which have slumped since the election.

The growth helped boost the group’s combined assets under management to $2.4 billion by the end of April, up from $2.1 billion in November, according to the data.

Tom Roseen, Lipper’s head of research, said the inflows into green funds could reflect value-shopping after the election triggered an initial sell-off in the solar and wind energy sectors.

He cited solar module maker First Solar Inc, a popular stock among green funds, trading at about $39.50 a share, far off the highs above $70 it reached last year but up more than 35 percent from a drop it suffered after the election.

TRUMP SCEPTICS

A GE 1.6-100 wind turbine (front C) is pictured at a wind farm in Tehachapi, California, U.S. on June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File photo

Trump campaigned on a promise to revive the ailing oil and coal industries, in part by dismantling former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

He also vowed to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight climate change, a promise White House officials said Trump is now reconsidering, under pressure from lawmakers, global allies, and scores of major oil, coal and other companies.

Trump’s more conservative supporters – including the man who led his transition at the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell – have complained about the slow pace of progress in dismantling Obama-era climate initiatives.

While many drilling and mining companies have applauded Trump’s efforts, some investors are sceptical that repealing climate regulation will provide a big boost to fossil fuels.

The government subsidies that are crucial for growth of wind and solar power, meanwhile, seem to enjoy bipartisan support in Congress.

Existing tax credits for solar and wind projects were extended for five years at the end of 2015 by a Republican-controlled Congress. A number of Republican lawmakers represent states with burgeoning wind and solar industries, such as Texas and North Dakota.

Trump administration policy has yet to affect renewable energy firms – and may not affect them much going forward, said Mike Garland, Chief Executive of wind farm owner Pattern Energy Group Inc..

“Most investors are starting to realize that the federal government is limited in its impact and the risk to (green energy subsidies) is relatively low,” he said.

Pattern’s stock has gained 20 percent since the beginning of the year, after falling 10 percent between the November election and the end of 2016.

Many of the green funds tracked by Lipper are heavily invested in renewable energy companies with overseas operations that reduce their exposure to U.S. politics.

One of the top holdings of Rosenblith’s fund, for example, is Vestas Wind Systems, the Danish company that produces and services wind turbines. If U.S. policies turned against wind power, Vestas could still expect strong demand elsewhere, Rosenblith said.

A number of exchange-traded funds focused on renewable energy also attracted money this year, led by Guggenheim Investments’ Solar ETF, which took in $28.5 million.

Its top holdings include Arizona-based First Solar and China’s Xinyi Solar Holdings.

William Belden, Guggenheim’s head of ETF business development, said the inflows suggest that “some of the early responses to the Trump administration were overdone.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

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Lights go out around the world for 10th Earth Hour

A combo picture shows the Eiffel Tower before (L) and during Earth Hour in Paris, France, March 25, 2017 at which lights are switched off around the world at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday evening to mark the 10th annual Earth Hour and to draw attention to climate change. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Peter Gosnell
March 25, 2017

(Reuters) – The lights are being switched off around the world at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, to mark the 10th annual Earth Hour, and to draw attention to climate change.

The initiative began in Australia in 2007 as a grass roots gesture by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia against man-made carbon dioxide emissions linked to a warming planet.

In 2017, it will involve the switching off of electric lights for an hour in 7,000 cities across 172 countries, at 8:30 p.m. local time, with the aim of highlighting the need to act on climate change, and saving a few megawatts of power in the process.

Among the famous buildings and structures taking part in Australia are Sydney’s Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, Luna Park, Town Hall, and Sydney Tower Eye.

Internationally the list includes some of the world’s best known sky-scrapers and historic buildings including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, London’s Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, the Colosseum in Rome, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Eiffel Tower, Moscow’s Kremlin and Red Square and the Pyramids of Egypt.

While the organisers of Earth Hour said they do not audit results of the energy saving initiative, the group has commissioned research indicating up to one in four Australians gets involved.

WWF says Earth Hour can take credit for various environmental initiatives, like the 2013 declaration of a 3.4 million hectare marine park in the waters off Argentina, the planting of a forest in Uganda and a ban on soft plastics in the Galapagos Island.

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Reporting by Peter Gosnell; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Japan Wary of Nuclear Power in Fukushima’s Wake

Anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the Japanese Diet, June 22, 2012. Matthias Lambrecht, Creative Commons via Flickr

Anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the Japanese Diet, June 22, 2012. Matthias Lambrecht, Creative Commons via Flickr

By Tatsujiro Suzuki
March, 2017

Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones. The Conversation

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

International Atomic Energy Agency experts review plans for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, April 17, 2013. Photo by Greg Webb, IAEA, creative commons via Flickr

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 1,200 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy.

Creative Commons

Tatsujiro Suzuki is Professor and Director, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Under Trump, Is It Game Over for the Climate Fight? — McKibben

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency is a stunning blow to hopes for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming. But a broad-based, grassroots movement committed to cutting emissions and promoting clean energy must continue and intensify – the stakes are simply too high to give up.

U.S. Geological Survey Follow Shriveled and Cracked  When USGS mapped the glaciers in Icy Bay, Alaska in the 1950s, the glacier in this image was flat and hundreds of meters thick. Bedrock is emerging as Guyot retreats very rapidly. Taken in Jan 2010. Credit: Shad O'Neel, USGS.

When USGS mapped the glaciers in Icy Bay, Alaska in the 1950s, the glacier in this image was flat and hundreds of meters thick. Bedrock is emerging as Guyot retreats very rapidly. Taken in Jan 2010. Credit: Shad O’Neel, USGS.

BILL MCKIBBEN, Yale Environment 360
February,  2017

One possibility is, we’ve lost. It’s a real possibility, and we should consider it carefully instead of ignoring it because it’s emotionally unpalatable.

I think the argument would go like this: The idea that humans would move quickly enough off coal and oil and gas to salvage the planet’s climate was always a long shot. When I wrote the first book on all of this back in 1989, I interviewed a political scientist who said “it’s the problem from hell,” with so many interests at odds, and so much money invested in the status quo, that it was hard to see a real path forward.

And that was back when we thought global warming would roll out somewhat slowly — when we feared the consequences that would unfold in the second half of this century. The scientists, it turns out, had been much too conservative, and so “ahead of schedule” became the watchword for everything from polar melt to ocean acidification. Already, only 17 years into the millennium, the planet is profoundly changed: half the ice missing from the polar north, for instance, which in turn is shifting weather patterns around the globe.

That galloping momentum of warming (building on itself, as white ice gives way to blue ocean and as fires in drought-stricken forests send clouds of carbon aloft) scares me. It should scare everyone; for a decade now it has threatened to take this crisis beyond the reach of politics.  To catch up with the physics of climate change we’d need a truly stunning commitment to change, an all-out, planet-wide decision to push as hard as we’ve ever pushed to spread clean energy and shut down the dirty stuff.

Even if he doesn’t scrap the Paris accord, Trump and his team will do all they can to slow the momentum for action.

The closest we’ve gotten to that — and in truth, it wasn’t all that close — was the Paris Agreement that went into effect last November 4. It committed all the nations of the world to holding the planet’s temperature increase to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and by all means below 2 degrees. It lacked enforcement mechanisms and strict timetables, but it did at least signal the planet’s willingness to go to work. And it helped conjure up the counter-momentum that was beginning to take hold: renewable energy was suddenly outpacing fossil fuel in many places. Carbon emissions were starting to stabilize.

Four days later, Donald J. Trump was elected.

He has promised, of course, to scrap the Paris accords, but even if he doesn’t do that, he and his team will do all they can to slow that building momentum. And since pace is everything here, that might well be enough. Our not-very-good-in-any-event chance just got much much harder.
But — and I say this with a certain weary sadness — the chances have not gotten so much harder that one can justify giving up. There definitely are days when I wish one could simply say ‘that’s that’ and walk away, and since I don’t live next to a refinery I suppose I have that luxury. Doing so would require, however, ignoring a few realities that shouldn’t be ignored.

One is the almost unbelievable fall in the price of renewable energy, which is continuing apace. Each passing month brings cheaper solar panels, more efficient wind turbines, more powerful batteries at lower cost, shinier electric cars. The pieces are there, and in a few spots they’re actually being used: If Denmark can generate half its power from the wind, then so can lots of other places. If India can build the world’s largest solar farm in a matter of months, then there’s no reason others couldn’t follow. The engineering breakthroughs of the last decade have made rapid conversion technologically plausible; as Mark Jacobson and his Stanford team have demonstrated, you can make the numbers work — they’ve shown state-by-state that getting to 80 percent clean power in the U.S. by 2030 isn’t easy, but it is possible.

The other reality is darker, but no less real: global warming will happen on a spectrum. It’s not like everything is okay up to 2 degrees, and then everything is hell.  Hell is breaking loose now, and we’re barely past 1 degree. Two degrees will be exponentially tougher — but 3 degrees will be exponentially tougher than that. The battle never really ends: you just keep falling back to the next redoubt, finding some new weapon with which to fight, yielding no more ground than you must. We’re never going to reach the point where it can’t get any worse. It can get worse, and it will if we don’t battle.
Where, then, will the battle be fought?
To some degree, in Washington. That’s been the center of the environmental fight these last eight years, with defeats (cap-and-trade) and victories (the Keystone XL pipeline) and constant, focused lobbying. In fact, we’ve lost at least as much as we’ve won: Even as we greet the Trump disaster, it’s important to account honestly for the Obama years, when America passed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the greatest oil and gas nation on earth. Yes, good organizing helped break the back of the coal industry, but that carbon-spewing anthracite was mostly replaced by methane-leaking fracked gas; depending on how you count the warming effect of that CH4, it’s entirely possible America’s greenhouse gas emissions went up during the Obama era. Still, D.C. was a place you could stand and fight: Obama had promised to do something about climate change, and you could try and hold him to that promise.

At least for now, there’s only defense to be played, but defense is half of any game.

Trump has promised just the opposite, and there’s no real leverage to hold over him. As his cabinet appointments have made entirely clear, he’s going to gut the EPA and turn the Department of Energy into a playground for the oil industry. (And who knows what he and Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin are cooking up for Russia.) At least for now, there’s only defense to be played, but defense is half of any game. If the filibuster remains in place and the Democrats can round up 40 votes, the worst damage can perhaps be avoided. That’s why we’ll muster and march: After the inauguration weekend’s Women’s March, a giant climate justice gathering on April 29 figures to be the next crucial date on the movement calendar.

My guess, however, is that most of the action will be outside the Beltway in the next few years — that Sacramento and Albany will be capitals of almost equal significance as we struggle to keep the energy revolution going. California is the world’s sixth largest economy, and it has begun to prosper from a tide of clean energy investment; success there will help drive investment in the right direction. New York is halfway into the most ambitious utility restructuring plan on the continent. Assuming that Governor Andrew Cuomo stays the course (and as a pol with an eye on bigger things, that seems a reasonable bet), the Empire State will demonstrate what a modern energy system might look like. That won’t turn off the dirty power plants in the rest of the country — they’ve been granted a reprieve by Trump’s election — but it will keep Wall Street paying attention. And even across the middle of the country, sense keeps breaking out. Iowa is largely wind-powered now; even Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, recently refused to scrap renewable energy targets.
In this new landscape, the large, sprawling, diverse climate movement that has sprung up in the last decade can push the process in many useful ways.
Take, for instance, the ongoing battles against new fossil fuel infrastructure, exemplified in the last few years by the battles over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Those were crucial fights, and only in part because they slowed the construction of particular pipelines. They also scrambled the investment thinking of multinationals, banks, and investors. Canada’s tar sands, for instance, may have been dealt a fatal blow by the various pipeline battles — even if they’re eventually built, billions of dollars in new mining operations were deferred or canceled in the meantime. The idea that tar sands output would triple or quadruple has vanished; even Exxon is facing the likely need to write off its investment in the north.

The battle waged at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access pipeline a particularly powerful chapter in this fight, and not just because it made crystal clear to the larger public what many of us have known for years: that frontline communities, and in particular Native Americans, are leading much of this struggle. Standing Rock also demonstrated that most of the nation’s (and many of the planet’s) big banks were still in the business of underwriting fossil fuel. That means new targets, and ones vulnerable to consumer pressure — the bank-lobby sit-ins that have taken place across the country are just the first wave, I’d wager.

In fact, the fossil fuel divestment movement will see a new surge of organizing. It’s already enormous, the biggest campaign of its kind in history, with endowments and portfolios worth more than $5 trillion pulling out of some or all of the fossil fuel stocks. And it’s already done damage — as Peabody Coal went bankrupt, it explained to the SEC that damage from the divestment campaign was one big reason. Now it becomes an even more compelling place to act: with the system jammed in D.C., the pressure will inevitably build elsewhere. And increasingly, divestment campaigners are taking on iconic targets, places like the Nobel Foundation or the planet’s great museums, making the case that our culture simply can’t survive the coming meltdown.

That’s crucial, because in the end the real fight is not over a pipeline or a windmill or even a carbon tax. The real fight — all real fights — are over the zeitgeist. They’re about who controls the vision of the future.

Even distracting presidential tweets can’t crowd out the brute actuality of drought and flood and heat.

Donald Trump and his band of fellow travelers won the vision battle by staring backwards — the key word in their ball-cap slogan is “Again.” And understandably, because the world around us is scary. It’s much nicer (at least for white people) to pretend we don’t have to deal with reality, that we can somehow turn things back to an earlier day.

But defying reality is a hard trick, day in and day out. Mother Nature is doing her best to break the spell all the time — sooner or later even distracting presidential tweets can’t crowd out the brute actuality of drought and flood and heat. And there’s a gentle reality that’s spreading as well: each solar panel means someone else seeing firsthand what the new world might look like.

The zeitgeist can’t be rewritten by environmentalists alone. Though there’s no technical reason why environmental protection should be a “progressive” idea, it’s clear that in our day and age the Republican party and the conservative movement have chosen to go with the fossil fuel industry. (They’ve been bought, and they’ve stayed bought). That leaves those who care about the climate standing with those who care about the poor, about racial justice, about immigrants, about peace. And at bottom that’s the right fit: a renewably powered world would be far more localized, democratic, and fair. It’s the opposite of planet Koch in every way.

Which means, in turn, that one goal of our fight must simply be to break the power of Trumpism and all that it represents. If you want good news, here it is: Trump and his crew have pushed all their bets onto fossil fuel. There’s no Obama-esque hedging and half measures. Which means that if they fall, then climate denial should fall with them. Fossil fuel worship should fall with them. Their backward-looking vision should tumble down around them.

That’s if they fall. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

Copyright Bill McKibben 2017 

This piece was originally published in Yale Environment 360, and is republished here with persmission.

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international environmental organization. His is the author of more than a dozen books about the environment, most recently Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Technology, not trade, real job-killer 

Wind turbines are seen near the Andasol solar power station near Guadix, southern Spain August 10, 2015. The plant is the biggest solar farm in the world and provides electricity for up to about 500,000 people. The 620,000 curved mirrors harness the sun's power even after dark, and the glass alone would cover 1.5 square km (0.6 square miles) - the size of about 210 soccer pitches. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Wind turbines are seen near the Andasol solar power station near Guadix, southern Spain August 10, 2015. The plant is the biggest solar farm in the world and provides electricity for up to about 500,000 people. The 620,000 curved mirrors harness the sun’s power even after dark, and the glass alone would cover 1.5 square km (0.6 square miles) – the size of about 210 soccer pitches. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
February 25, 2017

Living where I do in rural Northern Virginia, about 10 miles from the West Virginia border, it’s not uncommon to see trains pulling long lines of railcars full of coal to local power plants or towards Baltimore to be loaded onto ships or trucks, to be carried to other parts of America or the world.

In this day and age, however, the need for these trains is growing smaller and smaller. Improved solar and wind power is starting to make a difference in this country’s energy output and the jobs for these miners who fill these trains with coal is becoming more and more obsolete as the United States and the world continues to move away from fossil fuels.

President Trump, however, promised to reverse this trend. It’s part of his campaign to “Make America Great Again” by bringing back jobs to people like coal miners in West Virginia. The same is true of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest or in Pennsylvania. Areas decimated by changing global economics gladly accepted Trump’s promise that he could bring all those jobs back.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but those jobs aren’t coming back – at least not in the way the people who voted for Donald Trump want them to come back. And for many people who currently have a job in any one of several areas, and think they can just ride that job into retirement, there’s a very good chance that within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, you’re going be out of work.

But what takes your job away won’t be that your company switched production to China or Mexico, or that an immigrant or refugee came and took your job away, or that America started to import coal from someplace like China or Russia. No, the thing that will cost you your job will be technology. Maybe something as simple as a piece of software, or as complex as a robot, or as small as a microchip or as large as a field of solar arrays – regardless it will allow your employer to lower costs and improve productivity. And you’ll be out in the street.

President Donald Trump loves to complain that China and Mexico have been stealing jobs from American workers and that he plans to bring those jobs back. And you can see why this campaign promise resonated with so many people – there are five million fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States now than there were in 2010. Bringing those jobs back is nice idea but it’s totally pie-in-the-sky and not doable. Because the truth is that even if you brought those manufacturing jobs back they would probably be taken by a machine and not a human.

There’s a lot of recent research to back this up. A study by Boston Consulting Group shows that industrial robots perform 10% of manufacturing jobs today. By 2025, eight years, they will perform 25%. Another study by two Ball State professors showed that between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost to technology and not to trade. If that’s not bad enough, a report from McKinsey and Company showed that 49% of current worker activities can be replaced by technology. And that number is only going to grow, particularly in jobs that require repetitive tasks. Jobs, for instance, like in accounting, food preparation, taxi driver, truck driver or even some aspects of journalism, will be replaced by machines or robots that can do the job faster and allow increases in productivity.

So why is more attention not paid to this? There are probably two answers: 1) American businesses like to make money and cut costs. Their concerns are for their shareholders and not for their employees. If making more profit means replacing humans with machines, then so be it. They just don’t like to talk about it a lot; 2) it’s much easier for an unemployed 50 year-old white guy to blame foreigners or outsiders for losing his job than it is to blame technology. The steelworker in Pennsylvania has a much easier time blaming a worker earning less in China, then struggling with the fact that technology made his job redundant.

Yet there is a way to combat this problem. It’s called education.

For instance, in late 2016 there were over 300,000 manufacturing jobs available in the United States, numbers similar to what were available before the 2008 recession. There is, however, another important factor. Most of these jobs require what are known as “high skill sets” which means that they require a level of education that will enable a worker to operate technologically advanced machinery. To go back to our steelworker in Pennsylvania, chances are he or she is not interested in returning to school to learn a whole new skill set. It’s just much easier to complain about China and Mexico.

Meanwhile, most other Americans are ignoring the writing on the wall. A study by the Pew Research Center show that 80% of Americans think that their job will existed in its current form in 50 years. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.

It boils down to this. American jobs are being lost to technology, not to trade. The answer is education and improved skills but that requires much more investment in education. And based on who President Trump just named as his Secretary of Education, the befuddled Betty DeVos, there is a serious question whether that will happen or not.

President Trump can rant all he wants about China and Mexico but that won’t stop American jobs from disappearing. And unless he faces the real issue, it’s only going to get worse.

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

LINKS

Rise of the machines: Fear robots, not China or Mexico:
http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/30/news/economy/jobs-china-mexico-automation/

Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation
https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jep.29.3.3

Special report: Automation puts jobs in peril:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/02/06/special-report-automation-puts-jobs-peril/96464788/

Harnessing automation for a future that works:

http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/digital-disruption/harnessing-automation-for-a-future-that-works?utm_content=bufferd9ccc&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/02/06/special-report-automation-puts-jobs-peril/96464788/

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

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The terrifying mathematics of the Anthropocene

By Owen Gaffney and Will Steffen,
February, 2017

Here are some surprising facts about humans’ effect on planet Earth. We have made enough concrete to create an exact replica of Earth 2mm thick. We have produced enough plastic to wrap Earth in clingfilm. We are creating “technofossils”, a new term for congealed human-made materials – plastics and concretes – that will be around for tens of millions of years.

But it is the scale that humans have altered Earth’s life support system that is the most concerning.

In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that human impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and ice sheets had reached such a scale that it had pushed Earth into a new epoch. They called it the Anthropocene and argued the current Holocene epoch was over.

The Holocene began 11,700 years ago as we emerged from a deep ice age. Over the past 10,000 years, the defining feature of the Holocene has been a remarkably stable Earth system. This stability has allowed us to develop agriculture and hence villages, towns and eventually cities – human civilisation.

We use pretty powerful rhetoric to describe the Anthropocene and current human impact. As The Economist stated in 2011, humanity has “become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale”. We are like an asteroid strike. We have the impact of an ice age.

But what does this really mean? Does it mean, for example, that we are having as big an impact as these natural forces are having right now, or is it, somehow, more profound?

Humans: the new asteroids.
Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

The maths of the Anthropocene

In our recent study, we wanted to find the simplest way to mathematically describe the Anthropocene and articulate the difference between how the planet once functioned and how it now functions.

Life on Earth, the chemical and physical composition of the atmosphere and oceans, and the size of the ice sheets have changed over time because of slight alterations to Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes to the sun’s energy output or major asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Cyanobacteria changed the world; now it’s our turn.
Matthew J Parker, CC BY-SA

They can also change due to geophysical forces: continents collide, cutting off ocean currents so heat is distributed in a new way, upsetting climate and biodiversity.

They also shift due to sheer internal dynamics of the system – new life evolves to drive great planetary shifts, such as the Great Oxidation Event around 2.5 billion years ago when newly evolved cyanobacteria began emitting the deadly poison oxygen that killed all simple life forms it came in touch with. Life had to evolve to tolerate oxygen.

Taking as our starting point a 1999 article by Earth system scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, we can say the rate of change of the Earth system (E) has been driven by three things: astronomical forcings such as those from the sun or asteroids; geophysical forcing, for example changing currents; and internal dynamics, such as the evolution of cyanobacteria. Let’s call them A, G and I.

Mathematically, we can put it like this:

It reads: the rate of change of the Earth system (dE/dt) is a function of astronomical and geophysical forcings and internal dynamics. It is a very simple statement about the main drivers of the system.

This equation has been true for four billion years, since the first life evolved. In his article, Schellnhuber argued that people must be added into this mix, but his theory came before the full impact of humanity had been assessed. In the past few decades, this equation has been radically altered.

We are losing biodiversity at rates tens to hundreds of times faster than natural rates. Indeed, we are approaching mass extinction rates. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The last killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, now humans are causing the sixth.

The rate we are emitting carbon dioxide might be at an all time high since that time too. Global temperatures are rising at a rate 170 times faster than the Holocene baseline. The global nitrogen cycle is undergoing its largest and most rapid change in possibly 2.5 billion years.

In fact, the rate of change of the Earth system under human influence in the past four decades is so significant we can now show that the equation has become:

H stands for humanity. In the Anthropocene Equation, the rate of change of the Earth system is a function of humanity.

A, G and I are now approaching zero relative to the other big force – us – they have become essentially negligible. We are now the dominant influence on the stability and resilience of the planet we call home.

This is worth a little reflection. For four billion years, the Earth system changed under the influence of tremendous solar-system wide forces of nature. Now this no longer holds.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland

A new reality

Heavenly bodies of course still exert some force; so does the ground beneath our feet. But the rates at which these forces operate are now negligible compared with the rate at which we are changing the Earth system. In the 1950s or 1960s, our own impact rivalled the great forces of nature. Now it usurps them entirely.

This should come as a shock not only to environmentalists but to everyone on Earth. But our conclusion is arguably a modest addition to the canon of academic literature. The scale and rate of change has already been well established by Earth system scientists over the past two decades.

Recently, Mark Williams and colleagues argued that the Anthropocene represents the third new era in Earth’s biosphere, and astrobiologist David Grinspoon argued that the Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s “life”, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.

Still, formalising the Anthropocene mathematically brings home an entirely new reality.

The drama is heightened when we consider that for much of Earth’s history the planet has been either very hot – a greenhouse world – or very cold – an icehouse world. These appear to be the deeply stable states lasting millions of years and resistant to even quite major shoves from astronomical or geophysical forces.

But the past 2.5 million years have been uncharacteristically unstable, periodically flickering from cold to a gentle warmth.

The consumption vortex

So, who do we mean when we talk of H? Some will argue that we cannot treat humanity as one homogenous whole. We agree.

While all of humanity is now in the Anthropocene, we are not all in it in the same way. Industrialised societies are the reason we have arrived at this place, not Inuits in northern Canada or smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

Others may say that natural forces are too important to ignore; for example, the El Niño weather system periodically changes patterns globally and causes Earth to warm for a year or so, and the tides generate more energy than all of humanity. But a warm El Niño is balanced by a cool La Niña. The tides and other great forces of nature are powerful but stable. Overall, they do not affect the rate of change of the Earth system.

Now, only a truly catastrophic volcanic eruption or direct asteroid hit could match us for impact.

So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved? The current rate of change must return to around zero as soon as possible. It cannot continue indefinitely. Either humanity puts on the brakes or it would seem unlikely a global civilisation will continue to function on a destabilised planet. The choice is ours.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Owen Gaffney is an Anthropocene analyst and communicator, co-founder of theFuture Earth Media Lab, and Director of media at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.  Will Steffen is Adjunct Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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China tackles air pollution

Smog is seen over the city during haze weather in Tianjin, China, January 3, 2017. Picture taken January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Smog is seen over the city during haze weather in Tianjin, China, January 3, 2017. Picture taken January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

 

January 7, 2017

People wearing masks dance at a square among heavy smog during a polluted day in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, January 3, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS

People wearing masks dance at a square among heavy smog during a polluted day in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, January 3, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China plans cuts in major sources of air pollution including sulphur dioxide and will promote more public transport in large cities, the government said, as the country’s north grapples with a lingering smog crisis.

The world’s second-largest economy will cut sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to air pollution produced by power plants and industry, by 15 percent by 2020, China’s State Council, the country’s cabinet, said in a five-year plan paper on January 5.

As well as capping industrial emissions, China would raise the share of public transport to 30 percent of total traffic in major cities by 2020 and promote cleaner, more efficient fuels, the new plan said.

China is in the third year of a “war on pollution” to tackle the legacy of more than three decades of untrammeled economic growth, but it has struggled to meet air quality standards or to prevent occurrences of the hazardous smog like the current episode.

An environment ministry spokesman said on Thursday that excessive resource use was “a bottleneck holding back China’s economic and social development”, and the situation remained grave.

RelatedHuman Rights: There’s an App for that, by Jonathan Manthorpe   Column

An air quality monitor atop the United States Embassy in China  confirmed for the Chinese people what they instinctively knew:  their government lies to them. It has instigated a middle class protest that has the ruling Communist Party scurrying to respond on air pollution.

Smog has lingered over large parts of northern China for most of the last two weeks, caused by increased coal use for winter heating as well as “unfavorable weather conditions,” even though overall concentrations of small, unhealthy airborne particles known as PM2.5 fell 6 percent during 2016, according to environment ministry data.

The paper says emissions will be controlled through stricter emissions caps on large industries, adjusting China’s industrial structure and widening the range of companies required to curb pollution. Vehicle emissions will also be curtailed through tighter fuel standards.

The new 2016-2020 “energy saving and emissions cutting” plan also made commitments to boost recycling and shut energy-guzzling firms that fail to meet efficiency standards. It also vowed to use “market mechanisms” to fight waste and pollution.

In a separate announcement on Friday, the ministry said power generators and paper mills in Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin would be part of a pilot “emissions permit” scheme to be set up in the region later this year.

The government said last November that the country would create a nationwide emissions permit system covering all major industrial sectors by 2020.

Eventually companies will have to buy permits to cover their excess emissions. China wants highly polluting sectors like thermal power and papermaking, as well as sectors suffering from overcapacity, to be covered by the end of 2017.

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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Trump’s Hot Air Far From Greatest Climate Threat

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, U.S. on November 1, 2014.  REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, U.S. on November 1, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo

by Andrew Revkin, ProPublica
Dec. 29, 2016, 8 a.m.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has long pledged to undertake a profound policy shift on climate change from the low-carbon course President Obama made a cornerstone of his eight years in the White House.

“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Trump tweeted a year ago.

In recent weeks, Trump doubled down, nominating champions of fossil fuels to several cabinet positions and peppering his transition team with longtime opponents of environmental regulations.

Both the rhetoric and the actions have provoked despair among many who fear a Trump presidency will tip the planet toward an overheated future, upending recent national and international efforts to stem emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But will a President Trump noticeably affect the globe’s climate in ways that, say, a President Hillary Clinton would not have?

In recent weeks, a variety of consultants tracking climate and energy policy have used models to help address that question. ProPublica asked Andrew P. Jones at Climate Interactive, a nonprofit hub for such analysis, to run one such comparison.

The chosen scenario assumes Trump’s actions could result in the United States only achieving half of its pledged reduction through 2030 under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the worldwide but voluntary pact aiming to avoid dangerous global warming that entered into force on Nov. 4.

In this scenario the difference — call it the Trump effect — comes to 11 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide emitted between 2016 and 2030. That number is huge — it’s the equivalent of more than five years’ worth of emissions from all American power plants, for instance.

But it’s almost vanishingly small in global context. Here’s why. Even if all signatories to the Paris pact met their commitments, the global total of CO2 emissions through 2030 would be 580 billion tons, with the United States accounting for 65 billion of those tons. The Trump difference could take American emissions to 76 billion tons, with that 11-billion-ton difference increasing cumulative global emissions by less than 2 percent.

This calculation assumes Trump’s effect is not as damaging as his rhetoric might suggest. Is that realistic? In interviews, more than half a dozen environmental economists and climate policy experts said yes.

They said this less because they see Trump moderating his stances and more because many of the targets set by Obama, and built on in Clinton campaign pledges, were based on shifts in energy use that are largely being driven by market forces or longstanding environmental laws that are relatively immune to the influence of any particular occupant of the White House.

These include polluting industries moving overseas, increasing industrial energy efficiency, a sustained shift away from coal to abundant, cleaner natural gas and wind, and a host of climate-friendly policies pursued by individual cities or states.

For instance, while Wyoming is among the 27 states fighting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court, the coal-rich state looks set to meet the emissions benchmarks in those power-plant rules, largely because of a giant wind farm poised to be built in, yes, Carbon County, and newly approved transmission lines to send electricity to states in the power-hungry Southwest.

It’s notable that while Trump’s choice for secretary of energy, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a climate change contrarian, he’s credited by clean-energy champions with overseeing an enormous expansion of wind energy in his state. “Texas is a huge wind state, the biggest by far, and Rick Perry put in these transmission lines and made it wind friendly and that’s why they have such cheap electricity and no problems with reliability — none,” said Hal Harvey, a longtime climate and energy analyst who has advised past Clinton and Bush administrations and run a clean-energy foundation.

For many, this all hardly justifies a sigh of relief.

Indeed, many environmentalists reject the idea that any encouraging trends toward better energy choices are happening on their own. Many coal-fired power plants, they note, were stopped from being built only by lawsuits and political pressure brought by activist opponents, said Kierán Suckling, the founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which uses the courts to limit harm to public lands and ecosystems.

“Industry and Republicans certainly don’t believe in a secular trend. Instead they have poured enormous resources into trying to amend or repeal old laws, pass new industry-friendly laws, strike down and influence Obama’s policies, and prevent activists from enforcing laws and policies,” Suckling said.

With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, environmental groups are, in effect, “lawyering up,” vowing to counter any “drill baby drill” efforts with a “sue baby sue” response.

In the end, as global carbon-dioxide tallies reflect, such courtroom sparring, while important, is unlikely to have a game-changing impact on climate trajectories.

Much the same thing can be said of the lasting impact of American presidents. For nearly three decades, White House occupants have pledged to move the needle on climate change one way or the other, without terribly dramatic results.

In the scorching summer of 1988, when global warming first hit headlines in a significant way, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used a Michigan speech to pledge meaningful action curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, saying, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.”

Despite a host of actions since that summer, including President George H.W. Bush signing the foundational climate treaty in Rio in 1992, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of such an effect in emission rates.

Globally, the “great acceleration” in emissions (that’s a scientific description) has largely tracked the growth in human numbers and resource appetites — particularly a seemingly insatiable appetite for energy, more than 80 percent of which still comes from fossil fuels despite sustained efforts to spread efficiency and renewable choices.

William Nordhaus, a Yale economist long focused on climate change policy, calls the global situation a high-stakes “climate casino.” He just published a working paper concluding that all policies so far have amounted to “minimal” steps that have had equally minimal effects.

Nearly three decades after that “White House effect” pledge, after eight years of sustained efforts by President Obama, including building a critical 2014 partnership with China, Nordhaus finds “there has been no major improvement in emissions trends as of the latest data.”

In the end, the main value of the climate calculations spurred by Trump’s election could be in refocusing attention on the true scope of the challenge, which some researchers have described as “super wicked” given how hard it has been, using conventional political, legal or diplomatic tools, to balance human energy needs and the climate system’s limits.

The Paris Agreement itself was far more a diplomatic achievement than a climatic one. Its 2030 pledges leave unresolved how to cut emissions of carbon dioxide essentially to zero in the second half of the century in a world heading toward 9 billion or more people seeking decent lives.

That plunge in emissions is necessary because unlike most other pollutants, carbon dioxide from fuel burning stays in circulation for centuries, building in the atmosphere like unpaid credit-card debt.

The real risk for climate change in a Trump presidency, according to close to a dozen experts interviewed for this story, lies less in impacts on specific policies like Obama’s Clean Power Plan and more in the realm of shifts in America’s position in international affairs.

Even if he doesn’t formally pull out of the climate treaty process, Trump could, for example, cancel payments pledged by the United States to a Green Climate Fund set up in 2010 to help the poorest developing countries build resilience to climate hazards and develop clean-energy systems.

President Obama has already paid in $500 million of the $3 billion commitment, with another $200 million potentially paid before he leaves office next month. Environmentalists last week pressed in an open letter for the full amount to be paid before Trump takes office.

“If the U.S. walks from its commitment, I would think it would be difficult for the other OECD countries to sustain donations, and if those donations are not sustained, developing countries will focus on growth as opposed to low carbon growth,” said Henry Lee, a Harvard scholar working in and studying climate policy for decades.

But in international affairs, Trump and his proposed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the Exxon chairman, will confront a world of intertwined interests in which climate change has moved from being an inconvenient environmental side issue in the early 1990s to a keystone focal point now, said Andrew Light, a George Mason University professor focused on climate policy.

Light, who served on Obama administration negotiating teams in the run-up to the Paris accord, said such intertwined interests will be thrust upon the Trump administration starting this spring and summer in venues like the annual Group of 7 and Group of 20 meetings of the globe’s most powerful countries.

“Those groups have committed to action using very strong climate and energy language,” he said. “The way we got so many leaders to come to Paris and make this happen and ended up getting an even more ambitious agreement than we expected was by breaking climate diplomacy out of its silo — and making it sort of a peer issue to questions like trade and security. In this world you can’t just walk away from all this stuff.”

Given how Trump appears to be relishing his position as a wild card and a self-described master of the deal, it’s still impossible to say what will unfold starting January 20.

In a blistering speech to thousands of earth scientists in San Francisco earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown vowed to fight Trump in the near term using that state’s influence on everything from automobile standards to the national laboratories, which are managed by the University of California system.

But he also accurately described the climate challenge for what it is: “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future.”

This story was produced by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom, and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Help Us Investigate: If you have experience with or information about this topic, email andy.revkin@propublica.org.  Sign up for ProPublica’s newsletter.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Earth on the Docket: Americans join wave of climate litigation

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean in this July 12, 2011 NASA handout photo. Kathryn Hansen/NASA via REUTERS/File Photo

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean July 12, 2011  Kathryn Hansen/NASA via REUTERS/

By Mary WoodCharles W. Woodward, IV, and Michael C. Blumm
December, 2016
At a time when humanity must reverse course before plunging over a climate cliff, the American public has elected a president who seems to have both feet on the fossil fuel accelerator. If there is a mechanism to force the incoming Donald Trump administration to put the brakes on dirty energy policy, a lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the Barack Obama administration may hold the key.

Two days after the presidential election, on Nov. 10, a federal district court in Oregon issued a path-breaking decision in Juliana v. U.S. declaring that youth – indeed, all citizens – hold constitutional rights to a stable climate system.

The youth, aged nine to 20 years old, seek a court-supervised plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions at a rate set by a science-based prescription. The judicial role is analogous to court-supervised remedies protecting equal opportunity for students after Brown v. Board of Education.

The Juliana v. U.S. decision could be a legal game-changer, as it challenges the entire fossil-fuel policy of the United States.

Environmental lawsuits typically rely on statutes or regulations. But Juliana is a human rights case that bores down to legal bedrock by asserting constitutional rights to inherit a stable climate system.

The court, which ruled the suit can proceed to trial, rightly described the case as a “civil rights action” – an action “of a different order than the typical environmental case” – because it alleges that government actions “have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life and liberty.” The litigation, variously called “a ”ray of hope,“ a legal ”long shot“ and a ”Hail Mary pass,“ yielded its groundbreaking decision not a moment too soon.

The year 2016 is the hottest year on record, and Arctic sea ice has hit its lowest recorded level. Heated ocean waters threaten coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

To have any hope of reversing or stalling these effects of climate change, the world must restrict fossil fuel production and ultimately switch to safe renewable energy. Even continued production solely from currently operating oil and gas fields will push the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial temperatures, beyond the aspirational limit set by the global Paris Agreement on climate change.

President-elect Trump, who notoriously claimed that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has said he plans to immediately approve the highly contentious Keystone Pipeline, open public land to drilling, rescind Obama’s Clean Power Plan, eliminate NASA’s climate research, and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. He intends to spur production of US$50 trillion worth of shale, oil, coal and natural gas.

The 70-year-old president-elect will not live long enough to witness the worst consequences of rapidly expanding fossil fuel development. The cruel irony for young people is that actions taken during Trump’s time in office will lock in a future of severe disruptions within their projected lifetimes – and sea level rise that could make coastal cities uninhabitable. James Hansen, formerly the nation’s chief climate scientist at NASA, has warned, “Failure to act with all deliberate speed…functionally becomes a decision to eliminate the option of preserving a habitable climate system.”

Sea levels are projected to rise at least three feet, and perhaps much more, in the lifetime of children today, inundating some locations and making storm surges more dangerous. The Juliana lawsuit and others like it argue that citizens have a right to a stable climate.
NOAA

For decades, the political branches have promoted fossil fuel consumption despite longstanding knowledge about the climate danger. President Obama ignored warnings when he charted a disastrous course of increased fossil fuel production early in office. In a last moment of opportunity to avert climate tipping points, Americans should recall an elementary school civics lesson: The United States has three, not two, branches of government. The founders wisely vested an independent judiciary with the responsibility of upholding the fundamental liberties of citizens against infringement by the other branches.

As the president-elect promises to ramp up fossil fuel production and dismantle Obama’s recent climate measures, and with no obvious statutory law to prevent him from doing so, only a fundamental rights approach carries any hope of trumping Trump.

In Juliana, the youth asserted their fundamental rights under the Constitution’s substantive due process clause and the public trust doctrine. This is an ancient principle requiring government to hold and protect essential resources as a sustaining endowment for citizens. They contended that government infringed on their rights to life, liberty, and property by promoting fossil fuel policies that threaten runaway planetary heating – thereby jeopardizing human life, private property and civilization itself.

Judge Ann Aiken’s Juliana decision in November upheld both public trust and substantive due process rights under the Constitution and allowed the case to go forward. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” she wrote, explaining that public trust rights, which “both predated the Constitution and are secured by it,” cannot be “legislated away.”

The opinion is bound to have a rippling effect. The case is actually part of a wave of atmospheric trust litigation (ATL) cases and petitions across the U.S. and in other countries. Launched by the group Our Children’s Trust in 2011, the legal campaign asserts youths’ rights to a stable climate system and seeks court-supervised climate recovery plans.

Recent victories in Massachusetts, Pakistan, the Netherlands and Washington state indicate widespread judicial concern over the political branches’ failure to confront the climate emergency. The youth plaintiffs hope that the dominoes continue to fall in their favor in time to thwart climate catastrophe.

As ATL moves forward globally, the Juliana case will proceed to trial as early as next summer or fall. The plaintiffs’ attorneys aim to show the government’s deliberate indifference to mounting climate danger.

Already dubbed “the trial of the century,” this is the first time that U.S. fossil fuel policy will confront climate science in court. Any government denial of climate change will have to confront the scrutiny of a fact-finding judge.

Consent degree from Obama?

The case also offers President Obama a fleeting opportunity.

Five days after the election, Secretary of State Kerry proclaimed that President Obama would use his last days in office to “do everything possible to meet our responsibility to future generations to be able to address this threat to life itself on the planet.”

If so, the most viable way might be to offer a partial settlement of the Juliana case before going to trial. One form of settlement could be an enforceable consent decree consisting of interim steps to halt further fossil-fuel mining and infrastructure development. Such a settlement would help secure Obama’s measures to close the Arctic to drilling and halt coal leasing on federal lands.

Young Americans could use a down payment on the colossal climate mortgage hanging over their future. And President Obama could use a climate legacy. It may be worth his time now to sit down with the “plucky millennials” who sued him to save the planet – before his time in office runs out.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Mary Wood is Philip H. Knight Professor of Law, University of Oregon; Charles W. Woodward, IV is a Post Graduate Research Fellow, University of Oregon, and Michael C. Blumm is Jeffrey Bain Scholar & Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

More information:

Our Children’s Trust site: https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org

Watch the video by Our Children’s Trust:

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Hopes for UN Secretary General as Climate-savvy Leader

By Ruth Greenspan Bell and Sherri Goodman, The Daily Climate
October, 2016

Antonio Guterres, Geneva August 3, 2012. Photo by Eric Bridiers, US Mission, Public Domain

Antonio Guterres, incoming UN Secretary General. Above, in Geneva August 3, 2012. Photo by Eric Bridiers, US Mission, Public Domain

The selection of António Guterres as the new United Nations Secretary General is encouraging news for those concerned about the global challenges brought on by climate change.

Guterres, who will take over as Secretary in January 2017, has displayed an impressive understanding of the interconnectedness of climate issues and the willingness to fight for those causes he thinks deserve attention and resources.

Climate change is chief among the conditions complicating each of the already complex challenges that make up the UN portfolio. A Secretary who understands the security implications of a changing climate can lead the way to thread climate and its consequences into everything else the UN does – both to push hard for greenhouse gas reductions and to address the self-described “truth” articulated by President Obama, “that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects.”

The Secretary designate has already demonstrated that he understands the connection between climate and security and how the UN can lead in this unprecedented challenge. In this, he is a worthy successor to Ban Ki-moon, who used the force of his office to front-burner climate issues, particularly leading to the 2015 UNFCCC Paris meetings.

The best case for this is Guterres’ remarkable November 2011 briefing to the UN Security Council. In his then-position as High Commissioner for Refugees, Guterres spoke to the subject of “New Challenges to International Peace and Security and Conflict Prevention.”

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our times: a challenge which interacts with and reinforces the other global megatrends such as population growth, urbanization, and growing food, water and energy insecurity,” he told the 15 members of the Council. “It is a challenge which is adding to the scale and complexity of human displacement; and a challenge that has important implications for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Guterres drew attention to “the potential for conflict within and between states” as they compete for the scarce resources of water, grazing and arable land. He noted the possibility of “so-called ‘water wars’ over transboundary freshwater reserves” that could easily “uproot large numbers of people,” citing the example of Darfur, a conflict at least partially driven by climate change, environmental degradation and the struggle for access to land and water.

He drew attention to evidence that a one degree temperature rise increases the potential for armed conflict by 50 percent.

All of this alone would be impressive, but a second factor drew our attention: Guterres seems to be a seasoned and effective fighter for issues he thinks need global attention.

He has said publicly how hard it was to get the issue of refugees on the world and UN agenda – but proceeded to do just that. Based on this experience, he might just be the right person to work climate issues within the UN system, a system he clearly knows well.

Why does his comprehension and commitment matter? Daily, we get new evidence of the challenge ahead. Last week an Oxfam report documented how little wealthy nations, whose Paris pledges were supposed to raise $100 billion a year by 2020, are actually doing to help the world’s poorest people cope with the effects of climate change. In some cases, countries are lending rather than giving and in others ordinary aid is rebranded as climate finance. The resources to institute adequate protective measures are simply not there.

The consequences may be exactly as Guterres and security experts warn. But in his new position, Guterres can mobilize the resources necessary to address all facets of this complex existential challenge.

Creative Commons

Ruth Greenspan Bell and Sherri Goodman are Public Policy Fellows at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. (See below). This piece was originally published in The Daily Climate, an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Further information:

Read stories about climate change on F&O here.

Watch Sherri Goodman and Ruth Greenspan Bell speak on climate change and the UN.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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