Earth Day 2020: Celebrating 50 Years of Environmental Awareness and Action

Every day is Earth Day, as the saying goes. But, today marks the official celebration and fiftieth anniversay of the original event that launcehd the modern environamental movement.

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 helped lead the government to create the EPA and the pass of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Half a century later, Earth Day is now considered a global holiday celebrated with rallies and events in nearly 200 countries. These ongoing efforts to raise environmental awareness and call for govenment action have been more important than ever in recent years as the world faces the challenges of climate change. This year, however, the Coronaviurs Pandemic has moved these gatherings online.

This planet-scale public health emergency has shown how interconnected our modern world is. It has also highlighted the vital role governments must play in dealing with a crisis of such size and breadth.

Similarly, the scale of the problems presented by our changing climate are massive and require a huge government level response. That said, individual actions also add up and can collectively put pressure on elected officials to respond to the issue.  To learn more about the personal actions you can take to protect the environment, visit: https://www.earthday.org/take-action

Earthrise.  Credit: William Anders/NASA

COP 25: UN Climate Talks Come to Disappointing End

After extended negotiations, the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain, known as COP 25, came to a disappointing end on Sunday. Delegates from nearly 200 countries failed to reach a consensus on how to finalize 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 and urged countries to pursue an even tighter cap of 1.5°C (2.7°F). To achieve this ambitious goal, almost 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 our global temperature. For reference, we have already seen a 1°C (1.8°F) increase since 1880.

The main goals of COP 25 were to push for more substantial NDC commitments, set the rules for a carbon trading market, and establish a financial provision to compensate developing countries for “loss and damages” associated with global warming. But in the end, the delegates were only able to agree on vague language supporting the basic essence of the Paris Agreement. They cited the “urgent need” to reduce emissions but pushed off all major decisions to next year.

This unconstructive outcome is particularly notable as the global temperature continues to rise and the resulting impacts – such as more intense storms, wildfires, and sea-level rise – are becoming more apparent. It is also a stark contrast to the fact that Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The Paris Agreement, although ratified in record time, 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.

In terms of US involvement, President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax”, has already announced his intent to withdraw from the international accord. The agreement, however, was written to ensure that countries could not begin the formal withdrawal process until four 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. As such, the role that the US will ultimately play in global climate action rests with voters.

The Madrid meeting was the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The next conference (COP 26) will take place in November 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Credit: UN

The UN Climate Change Conference in Poland Keeps the Paris Agreement Moving Ahead

The UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, known as COP 24, concluded on Saturday. After two weeks of tough negotiations, delegates from nearly 200 countries drafted 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 and urged countries to pursue an even tighter cap of 1.5°C (2.7°F) if possible. To achieve this goal, almost 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 our 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 COP 24 was to create a standardized rulebook for the monitoring and reporting of these independent undertakings.  China – the world’s largest carbon polluter – was pushing for different sets of rules for developed and developing countries. However, in the end, a universal and transparent methodology was agreed upon that subjects all countries to the same level of scrutiny. Every country, regardless of economic status, will have to report their emissions – and the progress made in reducing them – every two years starting in 2024. The deal also calls on countries to deepen their planned emission cuts ahead of 2020.

While the meeting did produce a deal to keep the Paris Agreement alive and moving forward, it was a bumpy road. In fact, the negotiations were almost completely derailed by a debate over climate science of all things.  Many of the delegates wanted to formally endorse the IPCC’s special report on the consequences of 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming – the more aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement – that came out in October. However, several major oil producing countries, including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, balked at the idea and pushed to downplay the report’s significance. In the end, a compromise was reached. Instead of a full-fledged endorsement, the conference statement expressed “appreciation and gratitude” for the report’s timely completion.

The question now is, will individual countries make pledges to deepen their emissions cuts and take the necessary steps to make them a reality.

The Paris Agreement, although ratified in record time, 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.

The Katowice meeting was the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The next conference (COP 25) will take place in November 2019 in Chile.

Credit: UN

Fourth National Climate Assessment: A Dire Forecast for US if Action is Not Taken

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) report was released rather inauspiciously last week on the day after Thanksgiving – a traditionally slow news day. Nevertheless, the report is out and it clearly states, “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen.”

The massive report, considered volume two of NCA4, builds on the Climate Science Special Report issued last year. It gives a detailed account of what the impacts will be across the country and how the worst effects could be avoided.

The U.S average temperature, according to the report, has increased by 1.8°F since 1901, and is projected to continue rising. Over the next few decades, temperatures are projected to rise another 2.5°F.  By the end of the century, our average temperature could soar by as much as 11.9°F if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unchecked.

The report also looks at the long-term economic impacts for the country as the average temperature continues to climb. Costs from rising sea levels could reach as high as $118 billion and the projected total for damaged infrastructure is $32 billion. This is in addition to the reduced agricultural productivity expected from high heat and extended drought events. Overall, the report warns that if significant steps are not taken, climate change could slash the US economy’s GDP by 10% by the end of the century.

Not all doom and gloom, the report’s authors emphasize, “These impacts are projected to intensify—but how much they intensify will depend on actions taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the risks from climate change now and in the coming decades.”

While similar in theme to the IPCC report from the UN, this assessment focuses solely on the United States. Emphasizing the fact that rising temperatures will affect different parts of our vast country in different ways, the NCA breaks the nation down into specific regions. It details the current and future impacts of climate change in each one:

The report also includes a supplemental set of State Climate Summaries that give a clear idea of what to expect in each of the 50 states as well as the US territories.

Mandated by Congress under the Global Change Research Act, this exhaustive 1600 page peer-reviewed report was produced by 300 scientists from 13 different government agencies. Published every four years, it is considered this country’s most authoritative statement on climate change.

Annual average temperatures across the United States are projected to increase over this century, with greater changes at higher latitudes as compared to lower latitudes, and greater changes under a higher scenario (RCP8.5; right) than under a lower one (RCP4.5; left). This figure shows projected differences in annual average temperatures for mid-century (2036–2065; top) and end of century (2071–2100; bottom) relative to the near present (1986–2015). Image credit: Fourth NCA, Vol II, figure 2.4.

Special IPCC Report: Massive Global Effort Needed to Avoid Worst Climate Change Impacts

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C on Monday. It clearly states that the impacts of climate change will be greater at a lower degree of warming than previously thought.

Written by 91 scientists from 40 countries, the report finds that quick and dramatic action needs to be taken to avoid a warming increase of 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. Without aggressive cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions, the planet is expected to  reach this warming threshold between 2030 and 2052.

The Paris Agreement 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. This more aggressive goal was added at the urging of officials from low-lying island nations – those most susceptible to sea level rise. As such, the IPCC began to look more closely at what 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming would mean for people and ecosystems around the planet.

Previously, scientists thought that the most severe effects of climate change could be held off if the planet stayed below 2°C (3.6°F) of warming. However, this report shows that those impacts will come sooner, at the 1.5°C (2.7°F) mark. These consequences include coastal inundation from rising seas, worsening droughts and wildfires, as well as food shortages and mass die-offs of coral reefs. An extra half-degree Celsius, from 1.5°C to 2°C, would magnify those impacts.

To avoid the worst case of these types of effects, the report says the global economy needs to be transformed within the next few years. More specifically, greenhouse gas pollution must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100% by 2050. While this is technically possible, the report also highlights it will require enormous political will.

Under the Paris Agreement, every country around the globe submitted individualized plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). While an important first step, these are not enough to meet the agreement’s 2°C (3.6°F) goal, to say nothing of the more aspirational target of 1.5°C (2.7°F).  In fact, they would allow for 3°C (5.4°F) of warming by the end of the century. However, the agreement does legally obligate countries to reconvene every five years to present updated plans spelling out how they will deepen their emissions cuts.

For the US, the second largest carbon polluter in the world after China, political will for climate action is something that is sorely lacking. President Trump announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and has been rolling back his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, the principle aspect of this country’s NDC.

Nonetheless, 2018 marks the halfway point between the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and the 2020 target for countries to begin ratcheting up their greenhouse gas cutting commitments. As such, this new report will be key to the discussions at the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland this December.

Credit: Climate Matters

This Year’s “Climate Week NYC” Will Focus on Accelerating Climate Action

Climate Week NYC begins on Monday. This annual global summit takes place alongside the UN General Assembly and brings together leaders from a variety of sectors, including government, business, and non-profit organizations, to discuss solutions to climate change.

Organized by The Climate Group since 2009, the goal of the conference is to keep this pressing issue high on the global agenda. This year, which marks the halfway point between the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and the 2020 target for countries to ratchet up their greenhouse gas cutting commitments, the event will focus on ways to accelerate climate action. The ultimate goal of the non-binding Paris Accord is to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels

Public events to raise awareness and support of the summit’s mission are scheduled all week around the city, from September 24-30. They range in style from panel discussions and seminars to concerts and exhibitions. For the full program of events, go to the Climate Week website.

Red, Blue, and Green: The Environment Was Not Always a Polarized Issue

Earth Day is a time to focus on the environment. These days, however, it is hard to discuss the topic in the US without politics coming into play. While there have always been debates about land and resource uses, the issue today is more polarized then ever with the division almost always running down party lines. Those in favor of environmental protection and conservation are usually Democrats and those pushing for economic and commercial development tend to be Republicans. This type of tribal divide, however, was not always the case. There is a long history of Republicans taking action to protect the environment.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Yosemite Land Grant. This piece of legislation gave Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. Championed by Senator John Conness (R-CA), it was first time in US history that land was designated for preservation and public use.

This historic legislation set the precedent for Yellowstone, which spreads across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to become this country’s first official National Park in 1872. Established by Congress, it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican.  Yosemite eventually also became a National Park in 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison, also a Republican.

Coming into office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican from NY, became known as the “Conservation President.” Using the power of the presidency, he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. According to the NPS, this included the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

While also steadfast in his belief about utilizing the country’s natural resources, he understood the necessity of ensuring their sustainability. As such, he created the US Forest Service in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to conserve forests for continued use.

By 1916, there were 35 National Parks and monuments across the US. To manage them all, President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – signed the Organics Act, creating the National Parks Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior.

In the 1970’s, the environment returned to the national agenda, but with a new focus. After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fiire and the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, the rampant industrial pollution and deterioration of the nation’s natural environment became apparent. These human-caused disasters occurred around the same time as the publication of Earth Rise, a photograph taken by NASA astronaut William Anders as he looked back toward the planet. The image was a powerful reminder of how also fragile and unique the Earth really is. Together, these events led to the first Earth Day in 1970, where millions of people across the US came out to demand protection for the environment. As a result, President Richard Nixon – a Republican  – created the EPA. Soon afterwards, his administration passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

By the 1980’s, the hole in the ozone became an international environmental concern because of the adverse effects it could have on human health and the environment. Under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, governments around the globe agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. When released into the atmosphere, these gases, formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants, reduced the ozone’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the international agreement in 1988.

In the 1990s, climate change was beginning to be recognized as a serious environmental problem.  To address this issue, the UN organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, President George HW Bush – a Republican – signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international environmental treaty was the first step on the long and often bumpy road toward the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

The current Republican administration, however, has called climate change a “hoax”. It has announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and is rolling back the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So, it is safe to say that the Republican Party has been stepping back from its green legacy in recent years. In fact, we often hear Republican politicians and pundits say things like environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy.

History, however, has shown this argument to be largely false. In the past, some people saw National Parks as government land grabs that would hinder development. Today, they are among the most beloved landscapes in the country. They also generate millions of dollars every year from tourism for the local businesses that surround them. Regulations for clean air and water also had many positive outcomes. Not the least of which are the improved health of millions of Americans and the reclamation of polluted areas now open to new uses and clean sustainable development.

The lessons of history are clear. So, why is there such a polarized divide in this country over environmental issues? Who is benefiting from this rift? These are some important questions to consider not just on Earth Day, but everyday. After all, as the saying goes, everyday is Earth Day.

Earth Rise. Credit: William Anders/NASA

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