4 july 2013

Dear friends,

Recent months have seen an acceleration of climate news, much of it, for a change, good. The best news, surprisingly, is from Washington, where Obama’s climate speech of June 25 epitomizes a new sense of urgency, not just in the administration, but among citizens globally, who have been made painfully aware of the dangers of climate change by unusually violent heat waves and floods (that's the bad news). This public concern is being echoed in the Senate, where we can see the beginnings of a strong climate group around Senators Barbara Boxer, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, and the two new Senators from Massachusetts, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. But there have been many other important pieces of climate news in recent months and as a result, there are now over 100 more items on our news and commentary sites than at the time of our last letter ten weeks ago – too many to discuss separately or adequately summarize (find the list here). What are the highlights?

While there have been UN climate meetings in Bonn (see the reports on June 3 and June 14) and friction between the EU and China on solar panel imports (the EU alleged that China has been dumping solar panels in Europe at below-cost prices and threatened a 47% import duty, a move opposed by a majority of EU states ), nothing compares with the impact and context of President Obama’s climate speech at Georgetown on June 25. That speech was preceded and followed by four kinds of news relevant to it:

- New reports of extreme weather events: in particular, deadly heat waves in the U.S. West and Pakistan and devastating floods elsewhere (see the news items on Central Europe on June 3d and June 10th, on Northern India on June 21st, June 23 and June 25th, on Iowa on June 21st, and on Calgary and Southern Alberta on June 21st). An annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union supported Obama’s concern about climate-related extreme weather on June 26th, and on June 24th - just before Obama's speech - insurance companies said the warming seas were making many coastal areas uninsurable. In May, an official UK assessment found one in four London properties at risk from climate-related flooding and a four-year research project by scientists from 24 EU institutions on the impact of climate change on ocean levels found a major chance of a meter increase in the sea levels around European coastal cities by 2100. In April, a research finding that the rate of global warming had slowed was undercut by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany's top climate advisor to Angela Merkel's government, who pointed out that warming seas had not been taken into account.

- improved Chinese-U.S. relations on environmental issues, amid reports in April and May of increased Chinese action against greenhouse gas emissions.

- reports from major global economic institutions – ��World Bank and International Energy Agency, for example

- reactions to Obama’s speech from environmentalists (in China, India and the UK and, significantly for the ever-bleaker future of coal-powered power plants, from investment houses, Washington lobbyists and the World Bank. Contrariwise, wind turbine stocks profited.

In addition to these items of direct relevance to Obama’s climate speech, there are two other indications that the mood of public opinion and policy makers is shifting to greater realization of the need for urgent action against warming.

- In Washington, Democrats in both houses of Congress displayed increased concern and militancy on climate matters (see the breaking news rubric for April 25, April 26, May 17, May 24, June 5 and June 11). Both the new Boxer/Sanders carbon tax bill – due to be presented in Senator Boxer’s committee this month – and a revival of the “cap and trade” option are under discussion. This probably reflects polls showing 58% of American voters making the link between climate change and extreme weather, and more than half of them expecting extreme weather to “cause a natural disaster in their community in the next year”.

- On the mammoth project to build an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, environmentalists opposing the project were encouraged by a blistering letter from the Environmental Protection Agency criticizing the State Department environmental report on the pipeline project. Their militancy was also supported by urgent appeals for a presidential veto: these included Al Gore, a billionaire Democrat and 150 major donors to Obama’s campaigns. Also noteworthy was the intransigent opposition of Indian tribes whose land would be crossed by the pipeline. In addition, the refusal of the British Columbia government to approve a pipeline intended for the export of tar sands oil to China strengthened the environmentalist case against the pipeline from Canada to Texas.

What should we make of Obama's climate speech, which environmentalists have both praised and criticized? In fact, even the critics were delighted to hear the President finally speak out in more than the vague, brief terms he used in his February State of the Union address (where combatting warming seemed to be dependent on energy independence) and his June 19 speech in Berlin. Speaking on the Georgetown University campus a week after his Berlin appearance, he appeared to recognize fully the gravity of the climate problem, and he did call for an end to oil and coal subsidies. He called on the EPA (the only instrument available, since Congressional Republicans are likely to block legislative action) to limit carbon emissions, particularly from coal-based power plants. This may well halt new construction of coal plants, a very good thing. He hinted at a veto of Keystone XL (if it would exacerbate the climate problem, which it certainly would).

There is thus reason for cautious optimism, but a number of aspects of Obama's plan give cause for concern. Most significant is the inadequacy of his mitigation goal: a 2020 reduction of 17% in CO2 emissions compared with 2005. The indian Centre for Science and Environment quickly pointed out that compared with the 1990 starting point used in the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. reduction goal amounts to a paltry 3%, whereas most environmentalists agree that a 30-40% reduction compared with 1990 will be needed by 2020 to avoid warming of 2.C or more.

Basically, Obama seems to be following the combined advice of the more conservative American environmentalists and the least reactionary big energy companies and industrialists: only approve new coal plants if equipped with carbon capture and storage, substitute presumably abundant shale gas (which emits only half the carbon of coal and about 2/3 that of oil) for coal, biofuels for oil, and supplement the renewable energy sources of wind and sun with nuclear energy.

- Carbon capture and storage (CCS), however, as The Economist recognized in its critique of Obama´s plan, “costs a fortune”, and is therefore less than tempting to energy investors. Pressed by the EU as well as by environmental NGOs to curb the heavy carbon emissions of its coal power plants, Poland is not even considering CCS because of the cost and is trying to switch to gas and renewables. Even if it were affordable, long-term leakage from underground (or under water) storage is unpredictable and uninsurable.

- Nuclear energy, long opposed by most environmentalists because leakage of its wastes is an even greater problem than carbon storage, has frightened many ordinary citizens since the 2011 Fukushima disaster showed the danger of meltdown in case of flooding. Moreover, despite assertions that nuclear is so indispensable for reducing carbon emissions, and that abandoning nuclear power, as Germany is doing, will lead to more CO2 emissions, it´s renewables rather than coal and gas that are taking the place of nuclear power in Germany.

- Shale gas, reputed to be omnipresent, is actually both dangerous to the water supply (because of the chemicals used in fracking) and not as ubiquitous as claimed. Experts expect the shale bubble to burst within two to four years.

- Biofuels destroy CO2-absorbing forests and use arable land that could grow food for the world’s hungry poor, a problem bound to worsen as climate-induced heat and drought diminish available crop supplies.

What this leaves are wind and solar, about which Obama said too little.

Meanwhile, as a counterpoint to what The Economist labelled Obama’s Soviet-style “command and control” policies, there is a great deal of grass roots climate activism in the U.S., provided by older environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and newer ones like 350.org. This is partly directed against the Canada-Texas pipeline, partly organized by the student battalions of 350 for divestment of carbon energy investments by universities, cities and pension funds, and partly organized by local groups against fracking. At an intermediate level between the federal government and grass roots activism, a number of states, led by California, are organizing their own “cap and trade” systems. While we doubt these market-centered efforts are the way to go, they are certainly better than inaction. As The Economist pointed out in its article, a tax on carbon is a far more practical option.

Despite these criticisms, we were more cheered than depressed by Obama’s speech, since he broke the ice of official U.S. discourse on this all-important issue and probably galvanized further action from above and below in dealing with it.


Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change

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