Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn

The UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, known as COP 23, concluded on Saturday. Its goal was to draft the rules and processes needed to translate the spirit of the historic Paris Agreement into action.

Years in the making, the 2015 Paris Agreement set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). But when added up, the current collection of NDCs, which vary widely in ambition, will miss the 2°C goal.  In fact, they would allow for a 3.2°C (5.76°F) rise in the global temperature. This is why the agreement requires countries to reassess their plans every five years once it goes into effect in 2020.

One of the main goals of the Bonn meeting was to create a standardized rulebook for the monitoring and reporting of these independent undertakings. While some progress was made, the negotiators agreed to wait until the end of 2018 to finalize these vital rules. However, they did agree to begin discussing the NDC shortfall and the need to increase ambitions before 2020 at the next COP. This process was labeled the “Talanoa Dialogue”, which is a tradition of inclusive and transparent conversation used to resolve differences without blame in Fiji – the official host of this year’s conference.

The issue of financing climate adaptation – the touchy subject having wealthy nations pay to help poor nations adapt to climate change – was also pushed down the road. However, the delegates did establish an expert group to discuss the issue of “loss and damages”.

Although ratified in record time, the Paris Agreement is a fragile accord. All commitments are voluntary and vulnerable to the political will of individual governments – both now and in the future. Moreover, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises.

That said, on the second day of this two-week conference, war-torn Syria announced that it would sign the Paris pact. This move now leaves the US as the only country not part of the global agreement. The Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw the US from the accord in June.

Outside of the formal COP meetings, the positive spirit of the Paris Agreement pushed forward. Nineteen countries and several sub-national actors (states and cities) created the “Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Its aim is to phase out the use of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, coal still powers 40% of the world’s electricity.

The Bonn meeting was the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was lead by Fiji but held in Germany because of logistical concerns on the small island nation.The next conference (COP 24) will take place in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland.

Credit: UN

Syria Signs Paris Climate Agreement, Leaving US as Lone Holdout

The United States is now the only country on the planet not part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

On Tuesday, Syria announced that it would sign the historic accord to limit global warming. The surprising declaration came at COP23, the UN Climate Change Conference that is currently taking place in Bonn, Germany. The move comes on the heels of Nicaragua signing the pact in October.

Years in the making, the Paris Agreement set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

When the deal was struck in 2015, Syria was in the midst of a destructive civil war and Nicaragua refused to sign because if felt the agreement did not go far enough to rein in carbon pollution. The US on the other hand, under the Obama Administration, played a critical role in making the deal a reality. But President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax”, announced plans to withdraw the US from the global pact earlier this year.

Following the rules of the agreement, however, the US cannot officially pull out of the deal until 2020. In the meantime, the administration says it will only re-enter the global accord if it can renegotiate more favorable terms. The rest of the world, however, seems ready to move forward on this critical issue without the US.

The US is the only country not part of the Paris Climate Agreement. Credit: Quartz

Massive Federal Science Report Says Humans Cause Climate Change

The Fourth US National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released on Friday. It clearly states that climate change is real, it is happening now, and human activities are the main cause.

The first volume of the assessment – the Climate Science Special Report – says the average global temperature has increased 1.8°F (1°C) during the past 115 years (1901-2016). “This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization,” according to the report. It also says that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Going even further, the report concludes, “there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

With a focus on the US, the report says the average annual temperature in the contiguous forty-eight states has increased by 1.2°F (0.7°C) since 1986, relative to the previous century. It is projected to increase 2.5°F (1.4°C) by 2050.

In addition to warming, other aspects of climate change are highlighted in the massive report. One of these is sea level rise. Since 1900, the average global sea level has gone up 8 inches. Of that total, a 3-inch rise has occurred since 1993. This rate of rising, according to the report, “is greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years.”

Moving forward, all projections show sea level continuing to rise. An increase of several inches is likely in the next fifteen years and 1 to 4 feet is estimated by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by the end of the century, however, “cannot be ruled out”, the report warns. This is especially true if the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica prove to be more sensitive to rising temperatures than expected. In cities along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, where daily tidal flooding is already a problem, sea level rise is forecast to be even higher than the global average.

The report also contains details on how extreme weather is changing across the US. For example, heavy rainfall events are ”increasing in intensity and duration” nationwide with the biggest increases happening in the northeast. In the west, the incidence of large forest fires has been rising since 1980 and is expected to increase even further in the coming years. Heat waves, unsurprisingly, have also become more frequent while cold waves have become less frequent.

Looking beyond the next few decades, the NCA says the magnitude of climate change depends on the amount of greenhouse gases that are added to the atmosphere. The level of carbon dioxide in the air today has already passed 400 parts per million, a number not seen in 3 million years. If emissions are not reined in, the average global temperature could increase by as much as 9°F (5°C) by the end of this century. According to the report, “the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts.”

Mandated by Congress under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, this exhaustive climate report was produced by hundreds of experts from government agencies as well as academia and was peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Published every four years, it is considered this country’s most authoritative statement on climate change.

Its findings, however, are in stark contrast to the words and actions of the Trump Administration. The President has called climate change a “hoax” and in June announced that he is withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement – an international accord that aims to reduce greenhouse gases and limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F). The US and Syria are now the only two countries not part of the historic agreement.

Global annual average temperature (left) and surface temperature change for the period 1986–2016 relative to 1901–1960. Credit: NCA4

Road Trip Highlights US Environmental History and Shows Big Changes are Possible

Last week, I was in Pittsburgh, PA to serve as a Mentor at a Climate Reality Project training event. Having never been in that part of the country before, I spent a few extra days to explore the area. The overall experience felt like a road trip through US environmental history and was a great reminder that large-scale changes are possible, especially in this era of climate policy backpedaling.

First stop: Donora, PA. This Pittsburgh suburb was the site of the “Killer Smog of 1948”. As the longtime home of the Donora Zinc Works Factory and the American Steel and Wire Plant, smoke-filled skies were not unusual here in the early part of the 20th century. In October 1948, however, the air turned deadly. An inversion layer, a weather phenomenon where the temperature in the atmosphere increases with height instead of decreasing, trapped emissions from the factories. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases created a thick, yellowish smog. It hung over the area until the weather pattern changed five days later. As a result, twenty-six people died and thousands of others became ill.

This tragedy garnered national attention and spurred federal regulations on air pollution. In 1955, Congress provided funding for pollution research and later passed the Clean Air Act of 1963. In 1970, the EPA was created and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which established national air quality standards.

Donora is proud of their role in this change in national environmental policy. Outside of their local Historical Society/Smog Museum is a sign that says “Clean Air Started Here”.

Another highlight of this trip was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeastern Ohio. Established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 and upgraded to a National Park in 2000, it reclaimed and now preserves the natural landscape along twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland, OH. While relatively small, the river is an icon of American environmental history.

Starting in the late 1800s, the river became highly industrialized. For more than a century, the steel mills and factories that lined its banks dumped untreated waste directly into the river. The Cuyahoga became so polluted that it caught on fire thirteen times.

The last time was June 22, 1969, when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil and debris floating in the water. This fire, while not the largest or deadliest in the river’s history, caught the attention of Time Magazine and became national news. Appearing in their August 1 issue, the article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows”.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, river fires were common and seen as the price of industrial progress and prosperity. By the 1960’s, however, that way of thinking was starting to change. The country was becoming more environmentally aware and the Cuyahoga River fire put a national spotlight on the need to protect waterways from industrial pollution. The event helped to galvanize the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

In the years since, the Cuyahoga River has made an amazing comeback. Bald Eagles – a symbolic emblem of this country – have returned to fish its waters and nest along its banks. In 1998, it was designated as an American Heritage River to recognize its historical significance.

Today, our environmental challenge is the carbon pollution that drives climate change. Its solution, as with conservation issues in the past, lies with policy adjustments. While these types of large changes can sometimes seem impossible, history reminds us that they are not. All that is required is the will to act. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Cuyahoga River, past and present. Credit: Cleveland State University Library

Nicaragua Joins the Paris Climate Agreement, Leaving Only US and Syria as Outsiders

Nicaragua has announced that it will sign the Paris Climate Agreement. This move leaves Syria and the United States as the only two countries that are not participating in the historic pact.

Years in the making, the Paris Agreement of 2015 set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Based on the current collection of NDCs, the agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. It does, however, legally obligate countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated and to ratchet up their plans every five years.

Nicaragua initially rejected the deal, saying it did not go far enough to fight climate change. They were particularly skeptical of the voluntary pledge system and the lack of an enforcement mechanism for countries that did not live up to their commitments.

Their position, however, has now changed. In a radio interview, Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s Vice-President and First Lady, said: “Despite not being the ideal agreement, it is the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters.”

The US government on the other hand, under the Trump Administration, has rejected the science of climate change and called the deal an economic hindrance. In June, Mr. Trump announced that he is withdrawing the US from the global agreement that his predecessor helped to bring about. Syria, the other country not part of the accord, is in the middle of a civil war.

Nicaragua’s decision to join the Paris Agreement comes just weeks before the next UN Climate Change Conference – COP23 – begins in Bonn, Germany. There, delegates from all the signatories will flesh out the rules of the accord, discuss setting more ambitious emission-cutting targets for 2020, and negotiate the universal sticking point of how to pay for the impacts of climate change.

Credit: USAID

A Brief History of How We Know CO2 Drives Climate Change

The US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, recently denied that CO2 is the main driver behind our changing climate. Nominated by President Trump, his comments are in line with the Administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The fact is, however, the scientific fundamentals of the greenhouse effect have been understood since the 1800s.

One of the first scientists to look into the planet’s energy balance was Joseph Fourier, a French physicist, in the 1820s. Given the Earth’s distance from the Sun, he was curious to know why its temperature was not cooler. Fourier felt that something other than incoming solar radiation was keeping the planet warm and hypothesized that the atmosphere was somehow acting like an insulating blanket. Working with the limited technology of the day, however, he was unable to make the detailed measurements needed to carry his idea further.

Decades later, in the 1860s, an Irish scientist named John Tyndall picked up Fourier’s theory. An alpine adventurer, he was interested in glaciers and the then controversial idea of ice ages. Wanting to know more about how they formed, he devised an experiment to see if the Earth’s atmosphere was acting like a thermostat. For this, he built a spectrophotometer – an instrument that measures the amount of heat that gases can absorb. His experiments showed that water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane were all very efficient at trapping heat. This essentially proved Fourier’s idea of a greenhouse effect.

In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, followed up on Tyndall’s idea of an atmospheric thermostat and ran with it. Ruling out water vapor as too transitory, he focused on carbon dioxide, which tends to linger in the atmosphere for a long time. His calculations showed that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the average global temperature by 5°C (9°F).

To understand if such a large-scale change in atmospheric CO2 was possible, he turned to Arvid Hogbom, a colleague studying the global carbon cycle. This is the natural geochemical process where volcanic eruptions and the chemical weathering of rocks release CO2, while plants and oceans absorb it. Hogbom confirmed that CO2 levels could change dramatically over long periods of time. However, he also noted that industrial processes were releasing a significant amount of CO2 relatively quickly. Using this information, Arrhenius calculated that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, could alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase global temperatures. In the 1890’s, however, fossil fuel use was only a fraction of what it is today and he believed it would take more than 1,000 years for the level of atmospheric CO2 to double.

Jumping ahead to the 1950s, Charles David Keeling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, found a way to directly monitor levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. He created an instrument called a gas chromatograph and installed it on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is removed from both direct CO2 sources like factories and sinks such as forests that could skew the data. Still in operation today, the information recorded at this station is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows the steady increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere from 1958 to present.

Keeling’s measurements provided solid evidence that CO2 levels were rising and validated the theories of Tyndall and Arrhenius. More recently, scientists were able to extend his curve back in time by analyzing ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. This lengthy record shows that pre-industrial CO2 levels in the atmosphere were about 280 ppm. Today, they are over 400ppm – the highest they have been in more than 800,000 years.

Seeing this dramatic rise in CO2 and realizing the impact that a warming climate could have on society, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. They assess the peer-reviewed research of thousands of scientists from around the world and publish a synthesized view of the current state of the science. The latest IPCC report (AR5 published in sections in 2013/2014) unconditionally states that human activities are the main drivers of modern climate change.

Therefore, while it is the nature of all science to evolve with time and research, it is safe to say that role of CO2 does not require further debate. Today, the impacts of different feedback loops within the climate system are an active area of investigation. Science is following the evidence and moving ahead. Politics needs to catch up.

Scientists have been studying the climate since the 1800s.

As CO2 levels go up, so does the temperature. Credit: Climate Central

New Climate Change Documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”

On Tuesday night, I attended a special early screening of Al Gore’s new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. 

Credit: Paramount

Nearly a decade after the Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth first hit theaters, this film focuses on the former US Vice President’s continuing mission to combat human-caused climate change. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, it discusses both the wide spectrum of ongoing problems caused by global warming as well as the actions being taken to tackle this critical issue, including the landmark Paris Agreement.

While progress has been made, Mr. Gore says, “it’s still not enough.” When you add that fact to the Trump Administration’s recent rollback of the Clean Power Plan and withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the film’s call to action – “Fight like your world depends on it” – feels more pertinent than ever.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens in theaters later this summer.

President Trump Withdraws US from Paris Climate Agreement

At a special ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, President Trump announced he is withdrawing the United States from the non-binding, international climate agreement known as the Paris Accord.

More than 20 years in the making, the 2015 Paris Accord marked the first truly global deal to address the issue of climate change. With the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, nearly 200 countries submitted individual voluntary emissions reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

These essentially spell out how much CO2 a country plans to cut based on its own domestic situation. While the current collection of NDCs would only reduce emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal, the agreement legally obligates countries to reconvene every five years to report on their progress and present updated plans detailing how they will deepen their cuts.

As a leading voice in negotiating this historic agreement, the US pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26% – 28% below its 2005 levels by 2025. To meet this obligation, the Obama administration introduced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) via executive order. Developed under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act, this set of EPA regulations aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. However, it was nullified by a new executive order from President Trump in March.

Mr. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said the Paris Accord is a “bad deal” that is costing America jobs. But, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data, coal mining jobs in the US have been declining for decades largely because of automation and the availability of cheap natural gas.  Moreover, the US Department of Energy reports that the number of coal jobs in the US is less than 75,000 while there are nearly 650,000 people employed in renewable energy.

In announcing his withdrawal from the accord, the President kept a campaign promise and likely pleased his supporters. However, it is not that easy to pull out. The agreement was written to ensure that parties could not begin the withdrawal process until fours years after the accord officially went into effect. Consequently, the US cannot truly withdraw until November 4, 2020. That is one day after the next presidential election.

Therefore, the role that the US will ultimately play in global climate action lies with the voters, 71% of whom support the Paris Accord. Until then, thirty-seven states and four hundred local governments across the US, as well as more than a thousand businesses have pledged to continue to work toward the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Credit: Bloomberg

Why Earth Day Matters

Every day is Earth Day, as the saying goes. But, today marks the official celebration.

The first Earth Day – spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin – was held on April 22, 1970.  An estimated 20 million people attended rallies across the US to protest against rampant industrial pollution and the deterioration of the nation’s natural environment. Raising public awareness and shifting the political tide, these events helped put environmental issues on the national agenda. They led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

This year, with the rise of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration’s rollback of US climate change policies, the date is more significant than ever.  In the spirit of the original event, concerned citizens across the US are gathering for marches in support of science and fact-based environmental policies.

Blue Marble 2012. Credit: NASA

 

President Trump’s Executive Order Rolls Back US Climate Policies

With the stroke of a pen at a signing ceremony inside EPA headquarters on Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order that rolls back his predecessor’s efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change.

The main target of this sweeping directive is the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Developed under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act by an executive order from President Obama, this set of EPA regulations aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. More specifically, its goal was to cut emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.  It also sought to replace the coal-fired plants with a mix of natural gas, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. Now, with this new Trump order in place, the EPA will have to begin the process of re-writing and withdrawing these policies.

Other key points of this omnibus executive order include: nullifying rules on methane emissions from oil and gas operations, lifting the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and scrapping the requirement for government agencies to consider the climate impact of policy decisions – the so-called “social cost of carbon”.

Just before signing the document, President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said, “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.” According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, however, coal mining jobs have been declining for decades largely because of automation and the availability of cheap natural gas.  Moreover, the US Department of Energy reports that the number of coal jobs in the US is less than 75,000 while there are nearly 650,000 people employed in renewable energy.

Given the variety of items included in this presidential order, its full implementation is expected to play out over two very different time scales. Policies about coal leases and the social cost of carbon, for example, are expected to go into effect straight away. However, it will likely take years for the EPA to fully revise or withdraw all the Obama-era climate regulations. There will also certainly be a plethora of legal challenges from environmental groups and states, which will slow the process. New York and California have already declared their intentions to fight any effort to lift greenhouse gas regulations.

On the international front, the order did not say whether the US will remain a formal party to the Paris Agreement – the global pact signed in 2015 to combat climate change.  But in gutting the CPP, the Trump Administration has sent a clear message that it has no intention of following through on the greenhouse gas reduction pledges made by the US as part of the non-binding accord.

Executive orders give presidents the opportunity to promote their policy priorities in lieu of Congressional action. However, as seen on Tuesday, they are fragile things that can be easily undone by the next occupant of the Oval Office. In the end, this type of waffling back and forth on environmental policy generates a number of problems, both domestically and internationally. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that makes planning for long-term projects, like energy infrastructure and global agreements, extremely difficult.

Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant near Farmington, NM. Credit: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory