Post #152: While Our Attention is Elsewhere, Climate Change Worsens

Donald Trump’s presidency has gotten so much attention that the latest threats to climate stability have received only passing notice. To be sure, Trump’s belief that climate change is a Chinese “hoax,” and his appointment of climate change deniers to head major agencies, have been widely publicized.  Even so, the news of actual events—hurricanes, floods, drought, sharp temperature changes, and other distortions in weather patterns in the US and around the world—typically are being crowded out by Trump’s tantrums, fake news, and conflicts of interest.

For the strong of heart, here are some important developments affecting climate change over the past several months that you may have missed:

  • The last estimate of sea-level rise before Obama left office, by the NOAA, sees a worst case of an 8-foot rise by the end of the century. The low estimate is still a1-foot rise. Parts of the US will be hit particularly hard. “An analysis of 90 U.S. cities suggested that such an increase in damaging floods could occur by 2030 in most locations under an intermediate-high sea-level rise scenario and by 2080 under a low scenario. In general, the report suggests it would take just shy of 14 inches of sea-level rise for this to happen in any given location.”  A collapse of the West Antarctica is also quite possible, the report said. (washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/23/one-of-the-last-obama-era-climate-reports-had-a-troubling-punchline-about-the-rising-seas/).
  • Worldwide, the nuclear industry is losing ground thanks to lower costs for wind and solar energy as well as natural gas, and the Fukushima tragedy in 2011. “Globally, wind power grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%.” (The World Nuclear Industry: Status Report 2016; https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/-2016-.html) It is no longer economical to invest in a nuclear power plant!  As a result, the overall picture is one of cost overruns, abandoned projects, a very little new construction. About the only countries where the nuclear industry continues to thrive are France and South Korea. China’s nuclear industry, which has a high priority in the country’s energy future, has been hit by significant safety failures (http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/concerns-01092017121057.html).  Eight of China’s 36 currently operating reactors experienced these shutdowns, all caused by human error.  The basic problem, openly discussed by Chinese specialists, is that there aren’t enough well-trained, well-rewarded safety inspectors.  China thus is spending many times more money on renewable energy than on new nuclear power plants.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon basin, the world’s largest carbon sink, is once again on the rise (nytimes.com/2017/02/24/business/energy-environment/deforestation-brazil-bolivia-south-america.html). Farmers in Bolivia and Brazil are again clearing land in huge swaths for planting soy under contract to Cargill and Bunge. Those giant agribusinesses were among signers of the New York Declaration of Forests, which promises an end to deforestation in order to grow crops such as soy and palm oil. The common estimate is that one-tenth of global carbon emissions stem from clearing of land and accompanying fires in the Amazon region.
  • Disintegration of the West Antarctica ice sheet is taking place right now. The elongating crack is unstoppable, and while it reportedly will not mean rising seas for decades, it is just another sign of warming oceans and future peril. By the end of the century, melting of this ice sheet, combined with ice melting elsewhere, will cause an estimated sea rise of five to six feet  (nytimes.com/west-antarctica-ice-sheet-could-melt-rapidly.html).  That’s an extraordinary increase compared with predictions just a few years ago.

Every climate-change model I’ve seen suggests that we are way behind the curve for combating global warming and its potentially life-altering changes for human populations and habitat.  Plans for a nation-wide solution, such as a carbon tax, seem like whistling in the dark given the sorry state of Washington politics. For instance, some Republican elder statesmen, including former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker, III, have come forward with a plan to counter climate change (www.clcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/TheConservativeCaseforCarbonDividends.pdf). Though they don’t embrace the obvious—that climate change is due mainly to human factors—they do think “the risks” are too great to be ignored. Hence, they recommend a carbon tax starting at $40 a ton at the well head or mine, the proceeds to be returned to consumers in dividend checks. Of course the producers are expected to pass on their tax to consumers.

Good luck. With Scott Pruitt at the helm, the Environmental Protection Agency is about to become the Environmental Destruction Agency. Trump has already given the order for significant cuts in the EPA’s budget. The oil and gas industry has Pruitt in its hip pocket, as just-released emails from Pruitt’s time in Oklahoma make crystal clear.  As Forbes reminds us, “In six years he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA over expansion of the Clean Water Act and regulations on coal-fired power plants.” When Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time, he made clear that its business is businessForbes, which ordinarily is a pro-business publication, firmly stated that Pruitt will be violating EPA’s statutory mission: “Compromise with industry is not included. The mission of the EPA is actually quite simple: ‘to protect human health and the environment—air, water and land’” (www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2017/02/21/scott-pruitt-lays-out-a-vision-for-the-epa-that-contradicts-the-mission-of-the-epa/#5805c5d75829).

In the US, our best hope lies at the state and city levels, especially now that cities provide the overwhelming portion of greenhouse gas emissions, and those in proximity to coasts have the greatest urgency to act.  Here and there—in San Diego and other California cities, for instance, and in Des Moines and Adelaide, Australia—major reductions in those emissions are taking place or are planned (www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/opinion/cities-and-states-lead-on-climate-change.html).  This article states that “over 10,000 initiatives are underway in cities worldwide,” which is admirable.  But can these ideas possibly halt the upward curve toward planetary overheating?

James Hansen, the indefatigable former NASA official (he retired in 2013) who first brought the threat of climate change to our attention, believes that a carbon tax and a new kind of nuclear technology represent the last chance to thwart devastating climate change (www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/will-we-miss-our-last-chance-to-survive-climate-change-w456917).  The Paris Agreement’s call for limiting warming to 2 degrees C. is inadequate, he says. Without drastic political action, Hansen foresees the planet returning to conditions 120,000 years ago, when warming produced sea levels 20 to 30 feet higher than they are now. But Washington, DC is full of climate deniers, so what’s the answer?  “It’s really crucial what happens in the near term. But it will take a strong leader who is willing to take on special interests. Whether that can be done without a new party that’s founded on just that principle, I’m not sure. So we’ll have to see.”

Not very encouraging—and we don’t have time to wait and see.

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6 Comments

  1. The devastatingly widespread effects of climate change will be so vast that even the 1% will be threatened, and there will be calls to tax the rich… or eat the rich. Not much will change until the rich come to understand that they will be forced to become taxed, or eaten. IMHO

    1. Unfortunately for everybody else, the rich, who will become much richer under Trump’s tax plans, won’t mind the tiny additional amount they’ll be taxed. I worry about those who are already paying too much in taxes for the wrong things, such as military spending and border security.

  2. Thanks for the summary. The federal govt will take us backwards for as long as this wrecking crew is in office. Cities are the best hope to keep initiatives alive as state cannot be depended on with the take over by ALEC and the Koch Bros of state politics.

    I wonder if China is going to try to assume global multi-lateral leadership on this. It would be a great economic development strategy for their solar, wind and other technologies. I could see a focus on solar, wind and water management as a big win strategy for China in the Moslem world. We look backward through a dirty tail pipe.

    ________________________________
    ROBERT WISE, Associate Principal
    503.278.3454 | http://www.coganowens.com

  3. Hi Mel,
    Thanks for your posts on the new administration.

    One of the worst proposals is deportation directed at undocumented residents, and Muslims. It divides Americans against our neighbors and friends. Trump will employ tens of thousands for Border patrol and ICE agents to do this dirty work. He will spend billions of dollars on walls, detection equipment, transport and detention facilities in order to deport up to 11 million, thereby creating a self interested corps in the promotion of this wretched program.

    From the logistics viewpoint, He’s outdoing the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews. To find the Jews the Nazis propagandized the local non-Jews of Germany, Poland, France, Netherlands, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Czechoslovakia, etc. forcing Jews into Ghettos. The Nazis then shipped them to the death camps. According to Peter Hayes’ book, ”Why?: Explaining the Holocaust”, the Nazis spent few resources on this horror. Instead they orchestrated antisemitism so that the locals did the work.

    We don’t want to persecute the undocumented among us. Rather let’s recognize them for the contributions they already make and turn them into more productive members of society.

    Bob

  4. Dear Professor Gurtov
    I read your article at Counterpunch, which is my favourite news site, since it is evidence for a belief of mine which is unpopular among left-wing Europeans like me – that the USA, despite Trump, despite Obama, remains the most civilised country on earth. Britain gave Marx refuge, but it was the Herald Tribune which paid him a salary.

    But I must take issue with this article, which is full of errors, some of which I detail below:

    You say:
    “Donald Trump’s presidency has gotten so much attention that the latest threats to climate stability have received only passing notice… Donald Trump’s presidency has gotten so much attention that the latest threats to climate stability have received only passing notice… the news of actual events—hurricanes, floods, drought, sharp temperature changes, and other distortions in weather patterns in the US and around the world—typically are being crowded out by Trump’s tantrums, fake news, and conflicts of interest.”

    Extreme weather events happen all the time. Climate change can only be measured over decades – not over the three months since Trump won the election. There is no evidence that hurricanes, floods, or droughts have become more frequent over the 60-70 year period in which we have been emitting significant quantities of greenhouse gases.

    You say:
    “Mexico City’s water table is sinking at an alarming rate, while climate change is causing flooding and drought that may cause mass emigration. Just the latest case of environmental refugees—and potential sources of new conflicts.”

    The water table is sinking because of increased demand for water from an expanding population. There is no evidence that the immigrants from Mexico are environmental refugees. (Has any social scientist asked them?) They are looking for work, not water.

    You say:
    “The last estimate of sea-level rise before Obama left office, by the NOAA, sees a worst case of an 8-foot rise by the end of the century.”

    This estimate is wildly out from the official scientific consensus which is to be found in the IPCC sixth Assessment Report. A report written in 2016 predicting what will happen by the end of the century -that’s 84 years in the future. What credence would you give to a report written in 1933 about the world now?

    You say:
    “Globally, wind power grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%.”

    ..well, yes, but even with those phenomenal increases, wind and solar still provide only 2% of total global energy requirements. And at night, when the wind’s not blowing, that falls to 0%. So you can’t switch off the nuclear or the gas or coal plants, in case the weather changes.

    You say:
    “It is no longer economical to invest in a nuclear power plant!”

    Because nuclear can’t be switched on and off to compensate for the lack of wind or sun. Which is why Germany, with the world’s most ambitious renewable energy programme, is burning more and more coal.

    You say:
    “Deforestation in the Amazon basin, the world’s largest carbon sink, is once again on the rise… giant agribusinesses were among signers of the New York Declaration of Forests, which promises an end to deforestation in order to grow crops such as soy and palm oil.”

    Palm oil is used in bio-fuel. The European Union’s green policies require vehicles to use 5% biofuel, supposedly to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, which is leading to the destruction of tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations. It’s insane.

    You say:
    “Disintegration of the West Antarctica ice sheet is taking place right now. The elongating crack is unstoppable, and while it reportedly will not mean rising seas for decades, it is just another sign of warming oceans and future peril. By the end of the century, melting of this ice sheet, combined with ice melting elsewhere, will cause an estimated sea rise of five to six feet.”

    Ice sheets are floating ice. Their melting will not raise sea levels a single millimetre. Huge chunks of the West Antarctica ice sheet have been splitting off ever since we started observing it. They normally float about a bit then collide with the ice somewhere along the coast and attach themselves.

    On one point you are perfectly correct, when you quote James Hansen as saying that the Paris Agreement’s call for limiting warming to 2 degrees C. is inadequate. It is inadequate because it’s the developing countries (principally China and India) which currently produce 60% of emissions; and their share will necessarily grow as they develop economically. And there is nothing in the Paris agreement to oblige them to limit their emissions, now, or ever.

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