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

Climate Science is Not New

As someone who both writes and gives talks on climate change, I often meet people with doubts about the subject who ask: “Climate science is so new, how can we trust it?” The answer is simple. It is not new. In fact, the fundamentals of climate science have been understood for close to 200 years.

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 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 climate science is not a new subject. It is only relatively new to those in the political sphere.

Giants in the history of climate science.

Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh

The UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, known as COP 22, concluded on Saturday. Building on the momentum of the 2015 Paris Agreement, it began the process of putting the details of that historic accord into action.

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). Based on the current collection of NDCs, which vary widely in ambition, 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 reassess their plans every five years.

One of the main goals of the Marrakesh meeting was to create a standardized rulebook to monitor and report on these independent undertakings. But after two weeks of negotiations and to the dismay of those hoping for quicker action, the diplomats agreed on 2018 as the deadline for setting up this vital framework. The finance of climate adaptation – the touchy subject of who will pay for what in terms of helping poor nations adapt to climate change – was also punted two years down the road. However, they did issue the Marrakech Action Proclamation re-affirming their commitment to the Paris Agreement and their promises to combat climate change.

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. This is why the election of Mr. Trump as the next US President sent shockwaves through the meeting in Morocco.

The President-elect has famously called climate change a “hoax” and said he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. While only time will tell if Mr. Trump will follow through on his rhetoric of climate change denial, the rest of the world seems willing to move forward with plans to tackle this critical issue.

Outside of the formal COP meetings, the positive spirit of the Paris Agreement pushed forward. Four countries – Canada, Germany, Mexico and the US – announced their climate action plans through 2050. With one of the more aggressive proposals, Germany aims to essentially stop using fossil fuels and reduce its emissions between 80% and 95% by mid-century. Furthermore, a group of forty-eight developing nations, members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, declared their intention to switch to 100% renewable energy between 2030 and 2050.

The Marrakech meeting was the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The next conference (COP 23) will take place in November 2017 in Bonn, Germany.

Credit: UN

Credit: UN

The UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh is Underway

COP 22, the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, is underway. The goal of this massive meeting is to turn the ideas outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement into action.

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).

Moving into the next phase of this historic agreement, the diplomats attending the Marrakesh meeting will hash out the framework needed to monitor and report on these independent undertakings. The ideal system would involve an independent panel with consistent standards that monitors countries to see if they are following through on their greenhouse gas reduction pledges. This type of reporting, it is believed, would encourage accountability as it applies the power of public scrutiny. Some countries, however, are expected to argue for a self-monitoring system. China and India, two of the world’s largest polluters, are likely to push for this less public path.

Another big topic at the Marrakesh meeting will be money. During the Paris talks last year, the wealthy nations of the world said they would create a fund and spend $100 billion a year to help poor nations adapt to climate change. Negotiators will have to work out the details of where and how this money be spent.

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

That said, expectations going into Marrakesh are high as governments around the world have shown a willingness to act on climate change outside the parameters of the Paris Agreement. Last month, global leaders agreed to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas commonly used as a coolant in refrigerators and air-conditioners. They also agreed to make airplanes more fuel-efficient and reduce the overall carbon footprint of air travel.

The Marrakesh conference runs through November 18.

Credit: UN

Credit: UN

Paris Climate Change Agreement Enters into Force

The Paris Climate Agreement is signed, sealed, and delivered. Approved domestically by the requisite number of signatories with unusual speed, it will enter into force in 30 days.

The historic deal negotiated at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December required ratification by 55 countries, representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions before it could go into effect. This double threshold was passed this week when the EU, Canada, and a number of smaller states officially ratified the agreement. To date, according to the UN, 72 countries representing more than 56% of emissions have signed on to the deal including the US, China, and India – the world’s three largest carbon polluters.

The aim of this international agreement is to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, it employs a mix of voluntary and legally binding actions. While every country submitted their own emissions reduction plan known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), there was no requirement quantifying the amount of greenhouse gases they had to cut or how it had to be done. Additionally, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises. Instead, the accord depends heavily on global peer pressure and the hope that no country wants to be seen as a slacker in the eyes of the world.

Based on the current collection of national plans, which vary widely in ambition, this agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. The accord, however, does legally obligate countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated and to reassess their plans every five years.

While flawed, the Paris Accord is the world’s first truly global climate agreement. It marks the culmination of a very long, and often tumultuous, international political process that began at the Rio Earth Summit 24 years ago. That said, the hard part still lies ahead.

Individual nations need to stay the course and implement the commitments in their NDCs. The framework needed to monitor and report on these independent undertakings will be negotiated at the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) in Marrakesh, Morocco this November. The Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4th.

Paris Climate Change Agreement has met the double threshold required to enter into force. Credit: UN

The Paris Climate Change Agreement met the double threshold required to enter into force on October 5, 2016. Credit: UN

The Paris Climate Change Agreement is Signed at UN on Earth Day

On this Earth Day, government officials from around the globe are gathered at the UN headquarters in New York City to sign the historic climate change deal that was hammered out in Paris last December. This signing ceremony is one of several steps needed to put the global accord into effect.

Known as the Paris Agreement, the deal aims to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, countries submitted individual five-year plans called “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs. They essentially spell out how much CO2 a country plans to cut based on its own political and economic situation. Under the current collection of national plans, however, the Paris Agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. That said, the agreement does legally obligate countries to reconvene every five years to present updated plans detailing how they will deepen their emissions cuts.

The next step in the UN process requires participating countries to formally pledge that they will adopt the agreement within their own legal systems. The final step – known as “entering into force” – will happen when at least 55 countries, which together represent at least 55% of global emissions, adopt the agreement domestically. This last part is likely to take a few years.

A today’s ceremony, 155 countries are expected to sign the agreement.  This will set a new record for the number of signatories on an international accord. The previous record was held by the 1982 Montego Bay Law of the Sea agreement, which had 119 signatories.

Credit: UN

Credit: UN

Historic Deal Reached at UN Climate Change Conference in Paris

After decades of failed attempts, a global climate change agreement was reached at the  UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP 21) on Saturday. The deal, known as the Paris Agreement, marks the first time in history that all member nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in some way.

In the past, only developed economies like the US and EU were required to act while less developed economies like India and China were exempt. This was one of the major reasons why previous attempts to reach a worldwide climate agreement failed. The more universal approach used this time was largely attributed to, and builds on, last year’s bi-lateral climate pact between the US and China – the worlds two largest carbon polluters.

More than a year in the making, this hard won agreement has set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and urged countries to pursue an even tighter cap of 1.5°C (2.7°F) if possible. To achieve this goal, it employs a mix of voluntary and legally binding actions. While every country will follow their own emissions reduction plan, there is no requirement quantifying the amount of greenhouse gases they have cut or how it has to be done. Additionally, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises. Based on the current collection of national plans, which vary widely in ambition, this agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. But, the agreement does legally obligate countries to reconvene every five years to present updated plans spelling out how they will deepen their emissions cuts. It also requires countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated compared to their plans every five years starting in 2023.

The ultimate outcome of this historic deal will not be known for years to come, especially since it depends heavily on the tactic of “name and shame” and the hope that no country wants to be seen as a slacker in the eyes of the world. It is also deeply dependent on the actions of future government officials who will have to carry out these plans. That said, the global participation and overall spirit of the agreement is, without a doubt, a solid step in the right direction in terms of addressing climate change.  The Paris Agreement goes into effect in 2020.

COP 21 in Paris. Credit: Arc20

COP 21 in Paris. Credit: Arc2020