Progress on Climate Change? Good news… and bad.

This weekend, both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried op-eds on the new administration’s attempts to turn back the clock on climate change policy. Both articles suggested such efforts will fail, for a variety of reasons:

Writing in the New York Times, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had this to say:

President Trump’s unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement. But here’s the good news: It’s wrong…

Those who believe that the Trump administration will end American leadership on climate change are making the same mistake as those who believe that it will put coal miners back to work: overestimating Washington’s ability to influence energy markets, and underestimating the role that cities, states, businesses and consumers are playing in driving down emissions on their own.

 Though few people realize it, more than 250 coal plants — almost half of the total number in this country — have announced in recent years that they will close or switch to cleaner fuels. Washington isn’t putting these plants out of business; the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan hasn’t even gone into effect yet.

 They are closing because consumers are demanding energy from sources that don’t poison their air and water, and because energy companies are providing cleaner and cheaper alternatives. When two coal plant closings were announced last week, in southern Ohio, the company explained that they were no longer “economically viable.” That’s increasingly true for the whole industry…

Mr. Bloomberg went on to describe in more detail actions by state and local governments that are in synch with these and other economic realities.

Ben Adler, writing for the Post, recognized these same domestic drivers: commercial, as well as state and local. He added that the recent presidential directives, though showy and dramatic, are not likely to have any more immediate effect than President Obama’s earlier directives had in the opposite direction. He argued that the greatest threat is to America’s international agreements:

…Trump will certainly make it harder to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. He is a flamboyant climate science denier, even for a Republican

…Trump’s greatest threat to the global battle against warming is his attitude toward the Paris agreement. Without further domestic climate action, the United States was already at risk of not meeting its emissions targets under Paris. If Trump’s policies ensure that we miss those targets, it will undermine international faith in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, of which the Paris agreement is a part. Even worse, Trump will still be president when global leaders reconvene in 2020 to ratchet up the ambition of their emissions pledges for 2025 to 2030. We can safely assume the United States won’t play the constructive diplomatic role that it did last time…

But Mr. Adler then argued that other nations will continue that climate change policies in response to their independent domestic pressures, whether or not the U.S. goes along. In particular, he focused on China and India:

…China is far and away the most important global player on this subject. Already, it is the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, responsible for 27 percent of annual emissions and 0.17C of the 1.5C change already guaranteed. Based on its enormous population and its rapid economic growth, those numbers could rise precipitously. But instead — after decades of rapid growth — its emissions have been stable or slightly reduced for the last three years and it projects a drop of 1 percent in 2017. China is switching to clean energy, and its shift away from coal is contributing to a global slowdown in emissions. Over the last three years, even as the world economy has grown, emissions have stayed flat. China is on track to fulfill its promise from Paris to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, ahead of schedule. According to experts on Chinese environmental policy, it may have peaked already. In January, Beijing announced it will invest at least $360 billion in deploying renewable energy such as wind and solar from now through 2020.

 India, like China, suffers from severe smog in its major cities, and it is following suit. It has set ambitious goals for solar energy generation and is investing heavily in related infrastructure upgrades. Globally, new coal capacity was down 62 percent last year over 2015. China and India are also beginning to tackle transportation emissions, as they dramatically expand their train and subway networks…

 Reasons for cheer – or at least to dial back some of the current dismay.

But neither author addressed a hidden risk for the United States: budget cuts proposed for federal science agencies compromise the critical Earth observation, science, and services infrastructure that means the difference between intelligent decisions in this arena and unnecessary actions and waste. Such deleterious effects may not be fully evident over next few months or years – but the result will be trillions of dollars loss to the U.S. economy over the rest of the century.

Mr. Bloomberg referenced the UNFCCC, which dates back to 1992; those of a certain age will remember that at that time the world’s governments were mobilized by two pieces of U.S. science: a decades-long time series of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, documenting a steady rise (with a small superposed annual cycle) consistent with fossil-fuel emissions, and NOAA climate models conclusively demonstrating that a continued business-as-usual CO2 increase over the present century would lead to several degrees of global atmospheric warming. Good for scientists; they caught the problem. Good for policymakers and the world’s publics; they swung into action – action that continues to this day.

On the science side, in the 25 years since, the U.S. science community has partnered with scientists of other nations:

– to advance monitoring not just of CO2, but all greenhouse gases; of glacial ice melt and sea level rise; of ocean acidification, and more;

– to refine modeling, expanding its capabilities to separate out the different regional implications for climate; the impact on the hydrologic cycle; and implications for weather extremes; and

– to sort out sensitivity of climate change to world economic scenarios; and the impacts of climate change on human activity in turn.

On the policy side, innovation in energy production and distribution; agriculture, and water resource management are all reducing the cost of actions to mitigate and adapt.

There is still room for – and urgent need for – considerable improvement in all this work. It’s important to monitor persistently as climate change and variability continue to unfold, to detect departures from what had been expected early on, and to adjust accordingly.

We do that for hurricanes. If a hurricane were in the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 3-4 days out from landfall somewhere on the U.S. Gulf Coast, we would never say, “Oh, we’ve gotten all the bead we need on this one; let’s turn our attention to other things.” No, we’d have all eyes and assets on it throughout its track onshore and inland until its winds, rains, and flooding were no longer discernible. Public and government at all levels move as one.

There’s strong nonpartisan support for improving such weather forecasts. Congress is poised to pass a bill, H.R. 353, solemnizing that commitment. In this tempestuous time, that’s saying something.

Adding climate research to the cost of monitoring and predicting severe weather to protect the public increases the cost only by 25% or so – a puny dollar amount totally dwarfed by the benefits of getting the climate problem right.

The climate change threat is unfolding over 30,000 days, not 3. It remains to be seen whether seven billion people have the attention span needed to hold that thought. Also in the balance? Whether the American people want to maintain our current high ground in this science, technology, and innovation, or whether we’re content to cede our leadership to other countries and allow our safety and economy to be taken wherever those nations and their science and inclinations drag us.

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