Conservative Backlash to the U.S.– China Climate Agreement

The United States–China climate change agreement announced this Wednesday already faces strong resistance in the U.S.  As detailed here, the U.S. and China, which combine to produce nearly half of the world’s emissions, struck a deal to strengthen their reduction commitments. The U.S., which has already pledged to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, now promises to reduce them by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. China promises to cap its emissions by no later than 2030 and to produce one-fifth of its energy from zero-emission sources by then. The historic agreement has the potential to serve as a “wake-up call” for the international community. Deemed a gamechanger, analysts and policy advisers say the agreement could galvanize large-scale cooperation in Lima, setting the pace for a binding climate treaty in Paris 2015.

taylor postHowever, Republican leadership in the U.S. Congress has vehemently opposed the climate change partnership and threatens to derail U.S. committed emission reduction efforts.  After last week’s midterm elections, conservative leadership will control next year’s Congress and thereby U.S. climate policy. Next year’s Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), was one of the first to condemn the U.S.–China partnership.  Calling the plan “unrealistic” and part of President Obama’s “war on coal,” he said that it would lead to a loss of U.S. jobs. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) agreed with McConnell, stating that the plan is “the latest example of the president’s crusade against middle-class families.” Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Fred Upton (R-MI) member and Chair, respectively, of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also criticized the agreement. Both lawmakers said the deal meant that China is “promising to double their emissions while the administration is going around Congress to impose drastic new regulations inhibiting our own growth and competiveness.” Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who authored The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” also declared the agreement a “charade.”

Despite the resistance to the U.S.–China agreement David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the agreement attempts to jump one of the highest hurdles in international climate negotiations the “vicious cycle of finger-pointing.” The agreement deflates a vital tenet of right-wing dogma: “limiting our carbon emissions would serve no purpose, since other countries in general, and China in particular, would never agree to limit theirs.”

mcconnellHowever, strengthened by an influx of climate change deniers and fossil fuel pundits, Republicans have made it known they plan to launch an all-out war on Obama’s climate legislation, starting with the President’s Climate Action Plan. McConnell has said as Senate Majority leader, his top priority next year is to “do whatever [he] can to get the EPA reined in.” Previously, McConnell said a viable tool Republicans have is the federal budget process, which they can use to constrain the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) funding. He also mentioned earlier this year that he could look to a rarely used law—the Congressional Review Act—to repeal the EPA’s regulations on automobile and power plant emission and mercury reductions. The EPA’s ability to regulate emissions is central to U.S. climate change policy.

McConnell’s efforts to derail domestic and global climate action are joined by other climate deniers like Senators Jim Inhofe and Ted Cruz. Inhofe, who is slated to take over the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, voted against federal disaster relief for Sandy and has compared the EPA to the Gestapo. Despite the fact that 97 percent of the world’s scientists claim unequivocally that anthropogenic climate change is real and happening now, Inhofe thinks the UN invented the idea of climate change to “shut down the machine called America.”

Similarly, Cruz, who was re-elected last week and is in line to chair the Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees agencies like NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation, also denies climate change realities. In an interview with CNN last February, Cruz said he doesn’t think the Earth is warming. “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened,” said Cruz.

republican leadershipOther newly and re-elected congressman like Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), and Shelly Capito (R-West Virginia) all ran for election and won on a platform that denied the existence of climate change, promoted opening up more federal land for oil and gas drilling, and supported the Keystone XL pipeline. In September, Senator Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general, said “the jury’s out” on whether climate change is man-made. Senator Cotton, has stated “[t]he simple fact is that for the last 16 years the earth’s temperature has not warmed.” Cotton has also pushed for new coal power plant construction and the Keystone XL pipeline. Senator Daines has already signed a pledge that he will “oppose any legislation relating to climate change.” Claiming global warming, to the extent that it exists, is probably caused by solar cycles. Similarly, House member Lankford called climate change a “myth,” and along with Gardner, Cotton, Capito, and Daines voted to prevent the Pentagon from considering the national security impacts of climate change. U.S. conservative leadership is also likely to use the federal budget to prevent the State Department from offering funding to the UN’s Green Climate Fund. A fund that is essential to help the world’s least developed countries adapt to the effects of climate change.

ipcccThe conservative backlash threatens to derail the most ambitious efforts the world’s largest emitters have taken to lead an aggressive stance on climate change. Jake Schmidt, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, warns that “[a]nything that undermines the President’s ability to follow through on his climate plan will undermine Paris.” In issuing the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, chair Rajendra Pachauri called the work “yet another wake-up call to the global community that we must act together swiftly and aggressively.” The report released this month confirmed once again that “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions are the highest in history.” The report warns that to avoid the most damaging and potentially irreversible impacts of climate change (e.g., “substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on common human activities, and limited potential for adaptation”) we must switch to renewable energy, phase out fossil fuels, and set emission reduction goals. Despite this most recent report, the conservative leadership mentioned above stands on a policy platform that is in direct opposition to the report’s recommendations. How far will political posturing and scientific reality diverge? Only time will tell.


Reading Between the Lines on the US-China Climate Agreement

Obama and Xi JinpingAs noted on this blog yesterday, at the close of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing, President Obama and President Xi Jinping issued a joint US-China “announcement” on climate change.  The United States announced that it intends to achieve economy-wide emissions reductions of 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while China for the first time announced its intention to commit to peaking its CO2 emissions by 2030 and to increase its share of renewable energy consumption to “around 20%” by 2030.  This agreement between the two countries has been described variously as a landmark agreement, a gamechanger, and historic.  But is the agreement really all it is cracked up to be?

First of all, some commentators have opined that the agreement’s targets are simply not ambitious enough. For instance, climate scientist Kevin Tyndall recently expressed to chinadialogue that if we wanted even a reasonable chance of achieving the goal laid out in Copenhagen of limiting global temperature increases to 2C, China’s GHG emissions would have to peak at least as early as the mid-2020’s. Second, even if the United States and China are able to meet the targets set out in the agreement, enormous challenges would remain.  By 2030, the GHG emissions of the two countries would account for over half of the carbon budget that would give us a 50-50 chance of staying within the 2C goal.  This would leave little room for rising economies such as India and Brazil to continue to grow. Third, some have noted that this agreement does not amount to much because it largely reflects what the US and China are already doing anyway.  A Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst told the Daily Beast that “the commitment on the U.S. side is a summation of a variety of commitments that have already been made.”  Morever, three years ago the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had already predicted that due to a variety of factors, China’s GHG emissions would peak by 2030.  And finally, the agreement is lacking in detail, but what detail it does contain has been a cause for alarm for some environmentalists. While renewable energy is mentioned only once in the agreement, the promotion of carbon capture and sequestration and advanced coal technologies is featured prominently, mentioned no less than six times.  The agreement also promotes the increased use of shale gas without mentioning control of methane, which, according to the director of Food and Water Watch, simply amounts to “more promotion of fracking under the guise of climate action.”

Nevertheless, despite the agreement’s limitations, it still provides much cause for optimism.  Indeed, it represents the first time the world’s two largest GHG emitters have publicly expressed a willingness to cooperate on climate change. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the United States and China must cooperate on joint efforts to reduce GHG emissions – otherwise, there is simply no hope of solving this problem.  Besides this symbolic importance of the agreement, it also includes some practical bilateral measures that are encouraging, such as expanding the US-China Joint Clean Energy Research Center, enhancing cooperation on phasing out HFCs, jointly launching a new initiative on Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities, and promoting trade in green goods.

Perhaps most importantly, the willingness of the two largest economies and two China-deal-638x532largest GHG emitters on the planet to come together to announce action on climate sets a good example for both developed and developing countries.  According to Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy, this agreement will set the tone for the 2015 Paris climate negotiations and as such, could have “wide-reaching impacts on the global low-carbon transition.”  By one estimation (see graph), if developing countries were to follow China’s lead and developed countries were to follow the United States’ lead, we could slash global carbon emissions from the “business as usual scenario” by an enormous 2500 billion tons by the end of the century. The fact that these two countries have stated publicly their intention to act on climate change essentially leaves no excuse for others to not take action.  Now let us hope that they are serious.


Can social media offer a voice and a virtual seat at the climate change table?

It is estimated that one in four people worldwide use some form of social media. While this statistic may cause concern among some populations, should climate change advocates around the world rejoice in this? According to news about Instagram , the International Center of Photography  is working hard to bring climate change front and center for every social media user. This eight-year project aims to showcase beauty of untouched areas of the world and appeal to the senses of ‘what could be lost.’ Some of the photographs highlight climate catastrophes such as deforestation in Borneo and melting glacial fields. This is not, however, an overt cry for change.  The idea is to expose Instagram users to these images and spark conversation which would not happen when one walks solo through the ICP’s Midtown Manhattan gallery.  The onsite exhibition coordinator, Pauline Vermare, explains, “It’s not about art, it’s about changing the society.”

View of the junction of the Colorado and the Little Colorado from the Navajo territory. The Grand Canyon National Park begins after this junction. Click the image to enlarge. Copyright Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images

View of the junction of the Colorado and the Little Colorado from the Navajo territory. The Grand Canyon National Park begins after this junction.  This is one of the ICP images.
Click the image to enlarge. Copyright Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images

Using social media to raise climate change awareness is not novel: three years ago, Al Gore started “The Climate Reality Project,” created a FaceBook page and asked the public to commit to hosting view-parties for online climate change events. Today, this page has almost 321,000 ‘likes’ and still acts as a news source for climate-savvy FaceBookers. Others add climate change inspired ‘hashtags’ that cross social media boundaries from FaceBook to Twitter and Instagram. This was evident during People’s Climate march as over 400,000 participants gathered in the streets of New York City – most uploading photos with #peoplesclimatemarch.

While these social media campaigns may subconsciously expose us to issues or overtly alert us to climate news, do they really make a difference to the leaders on the road to Lima and Paris for upcoming UNFCCC and Kyoto negotiations? It seems as though, while a good way to stay informed, there is little evidence that party leaders actually take social media into account when devising negotiating plans. This doesn’t mean social media has no influence on policy; it may just mean that this is one channel for negotiators to monitor the thoughts of citizens and for constituencies to keep tabs on issues.  Since 2008, the UNFCCC secretariat and Information Services Coordinator have stated that virtual participation in convention sessions is a priority. Growing numbers of Convention delegates, lack of funding for some Parties/organizations to send delegates and a new host city each year make virtual participation a timely choice.  With increased virtual participation via social media, an active FaceBook page for UNFCCC and a plethora of citizen groups pushing climate change awareness, WE MAY ALL HAVE A VOICE and a front row seat (at least, in front of a laptop) at Paris COP21.  As for Lima, have confidence that the blogging, hashtagging and tweeting will keep the masses informed.


EU Debating Internally Its Carbon Emission Pledges

This article in Bloomberg News explores the divide among EU member countries when setting the bloc’s overall commitments under the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, as well as those it will agree to in the KP’s successor agreement due to be signed in Paris in 2015.  A draft plan due to be released tomorrow by the European Commission (EC) seeks to commit the EU’s 28 member countries to reducing carbon emissions by 35 – 40% by 2030.  (Currently the EU has pledged a 21% cut by 2020 over 2005 levels.)

Polish coal fired utilityThis plan’s ambitions pose internal political challenges.  Retail power prices have spiked 65% from 2004 to 2011,while natural gas prices have risen by 42%.  In comparison, inflation has been 18% during that same time period.  Some EU members, like Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K., support the 40% target while countries like Poland, which derives almost all of its electricity from coal, opposes it.  Likewise, there is disagreement on how to balance the policy goals of overall reduction targets with renewable energy targets.  Four years ago, when making the 2020 pledge, the EU also aimed to have 20% of energy consumption by 2020 come from renewables. Germany, France, Ireland, Denmark, and Belgium continue to support having a separate renewables target, while the U.K. opposes it.  Internal politics is key to the EU’s next climate policy steps:  the European Parliament is due for elections in May and the EC, in October.

In the larger picture also looms external political concerns.  “What we must do is to keep climate policy, but we have to put at the same level cost competitiveness for energy and security of supply,” said the president of BusinessEurope, a Brussels-based group that represents companies from 35 European countries. “If we go for 40 percent unilaterally this would be absolutely against industrial competitiveness of Europe. The goal has to be realistic.”danish wind turbine

Reconciling the internal and external political concerns is not only key to the EU setting its internal climate policy, but also critical for the UNFCCC negotiations: the EU has the biggest emissions trading system (covering some 12,000 utilities and manufacturers) and the most advanced limits on carbon emissions (covering industrial sectors outside the ETS).  Consequently it is a leader both in setting ambition and devising the mechanisms for achieving sustainable development for developed countries.


Bring in the subs

As Lindsay chronicled here and here, COP19 officially acknowledged the importance of climate change mitigation and adaptation activity at the subnational level.  Even though the UNFCCC is premised on negotiation between nations (state parties), all involved recognize the groundswell of climate change laws and projects at the city and regional levels, where the rubber literally meets the road.  The stats of C40, asubs coming in consortium of the 40 largest cities in the world, pack a punch:  8% of the world’s population, 5% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 21% of the global GDP.  No second string players here, and tremendous potential for actual change, if there really is no I in team.

Looking ahead to the legally binding agreement that will take the Kyoto Protocol’s place, the COP19 ADP decision and conclusions consciously include cities and other subnational governments to participate in upcoming ADP-sponsored technical meetings and forums to share mitigation and adaptation best practices culled from their work to date.

pacific coast action planGiven this international spotlight on local climate change work, a couple of recent publications emphasizing subnational climate change activity in the U.S. merit a closer look.  In VLS’s Top Ten Environmental Watchlist, my colleague Hillary Hoffmann analyzes the Pacific Coast Action Plan as a possible “blueprint for locally driven climate and energy policy.”  By signing it, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the premier of British Columbia agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy incentives along the Pacific Coast – and bypassed their respective federal legislatures!  As Washington Governor Jay Inslee summed up subnational pride and can-do attitude, “on the West Coast, we intend to design the future, not to wreck it.”

Together, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia have a population of 53 million and a GDP of $2.8 trillion, making it the world’s fifth largest economy.  Given how their economies are regionally linked, the Action Plan’s signatories agreed to1) link carbon-pricing programs for “consistency and predictability;” 2) “harmonize 2050 targets for greenhouse gas reductions;” 3) ground all policies in the “scientific understanding of climate change;” 4) “adopt low-carbon fuel standards in each jurisdiction;” 5) have 10% of all “new public and private vehicle purchases” be electric by 2016; 6) support high-speed passenger rail service throughout the region; 7) support “emerging markets and innovation for alternative fuels;” 8) streamline “renewable energy infrastructure;” 9)“integrate the region’s electricity grids;” and 10) work together to “press for an international agreement on climate change in 2015.”

Hmmm, a bunch of leaders sitting in a room amidst their jurisdictions’ flags, negotiating mitigation targets, science-based standards, consistent carbon accounting rules . . . sound familiar, n’est-ce pas?

NYC high lineKudos to the Left Coast. So what’s happening on the Atlantic?  A recent article in the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, tells “a tale of two cities,” New York, NY and New Bern, NC, to emphasize how differently two East Coast cities are responding to climate change predictions in their urban planning.  In New York City, where the NY City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) predicts that storms like Superstorm Sandy will occur every two years by 2100 and almost a million people will be living in flood-prone areas by 2050, Mayor Bloomberg launched PlaNYC. Its goal: reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030. How?  By renovating skyscrapers to use less energy, increasing green space, and improving walkability and bikeability. Der Spiegel notes that the city has already planted 800,000 new trees, made Times Square a pedestrian zone,  and constructed over 600 miles of bike paths, resulting in a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions since 2005.  On the adaptation front, flood wall construction is in the mix, along with other beach and land erosion techniques.

In contrast, when the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) issued a report predicting a sea-level rise of more than one meter and the NC Department of Public Safety determined that this rise would cost $7.4 billion to rebuild homes, office buildings, and public facilities wiped out by storm surges, the state legislature responded:  with a law that says that the sea level off the North Carolina coast will not rise more quickly than it has in the last 100 years. Period.  Thus urban planners, like those in New Bern, are instructed to disregard the CRC’s science-based advice, because North Carolina legislators forbid the seas to rise.

Maybe they recommend flood insurance, just in case?  (Read here to learn more about recent federal attempts to reform the National Flood Insurance Program.)

Stay tuned.  It will be interesting to watch how these subs change the state of play as they enter the international arena — and challenge some starter spots.

 

UPDATE:  The NYT 12/15 reports that as he prepares to leave office, Mayor Bloomberg is creating a consulting group to “reshape cities around the globe” staffed by many of his top NYC employees.  This development alone will fuel significant subnational activity at next year’s ADP negotiations.


New appointment to Obama’s CC team

Will John Podesta’s transition from a White House “outside advisor” to an official “inside advisor” have an impact on the next round of ADP discussions coming up in March, 2014?

john podestaAs this Grist article notes, Podesta is a veteran political insider, having served both the Clinton and Obama administrations before taking up his position at the Center for American Progress (CAP).  While it’s reported that his portfolio will include health care, his real focus is expected to be on climate change, specifically on seeing the President’s Climate Action Plan through by getting the maximum use of executive power to push the U.S. to lower its GHG emissions.

IMG_4346

The US team at the penultimate ADP negotiation session at COP19.

Grist emphasizes Podesta’s vocal opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, but I’m more curious about his potential impact on Stern’s negotiating team and its approach to the upcoming meeting in Bonn.  Given the shift to nationally determined commitments, a country’s domestic climate change policies are critical to the shape and scope of a new international agreement.  This recent report from CAP indicates that the U.S. is in a neck-and-neck race with China and Germany for first place in the “green revolution” leaders’ circle.  It concludes by proposing “that the United States take advantage of its true national strengths: the ability to innovate from the state and local levels up, and to combine policies that work for different regions of the country into a coherent whole. … an integrated set of regional energy strategies. This is our competitive edge.”

***  Hat tip to LLM candidate Heather Croshaw for alerting me to this Grist article.  ***