2 february 2017

Amsterdam, February 2, 2017
Dear Friends,

Since November 8, climate news, as well as most other news, has been overshadowed by the election to the American presidency of populist billionaire and climate skeptic Donald Trump.

While there are acute concerns that the new Republican administration will dismantle legislation supporting health care, civil rights and gender equality, and geopolitical apprehension that Trump’s friendship with Putin and his openly expressed desire for a disintegration of the European Union could trouble the peace Europe has enjoyed since 1945 , the new President’s cabinet nominations have above all inspired anxiety among those concerned for the future of planet Earth. That one of Trump’s first actions in the White House has been the revival of Federal support for the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines further justifies this anxiety.

Most of Trump’s nominees are, like himself, climate skeptics. In charge of the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been Myron Ebell, a prominent fossil fuel lobbyist. Ebell is described by National Public Radio as director of “the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute….one of the few conservative, free-market groups that's been an accredited non-governmental organization at the United Nations' climate meetings.” Despite Trump’s assurance to the New York Times that he has an open mind on climate, Ebell, continues NPR, “has long questioned mainstream climate science and has argued against any need to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet”

Scott Pruitt, the climate skeptic scheduled by Trump to be head of the EPA, had, as Attorney General of Oklahoma, “sued U.S. EPA to end carbon regulations”. The nominated Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Pêrry, had vowed during the Republican primaries to eliminate the Department of Energy, responsible for regulating fracking and the development of renewables. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, who will bear responsibility for international climate negotiations, was until December 31, 2016 the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s foremost fossil fuel company. Exxon had long financed climate denial lobbyists despite the findings of its own scientists that climate change was real and dangerous. Tillerson has modified Exxon’s hard line in recent years, but it is nonetheless a sign of how bad things are in Trumpland that he might be the only non-denialist in the cabinet and is seen by Obama’s Special Envoy for Climate Change as “your best bet for climate.”

On January 25, Reuters reported that Trump had “instructed” the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate its pages on climate change. And on January 29, most UK newspapers reported that Trump had refused, during a coming visit to Great Britain, to schedule a meeting with the environmentalist heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles. According to The Independent of January 29:
Members of the Republican politician’s staff have warned that Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s son, should not 'lecture' him on climate change during the visit in case the fiery politician 'erupts' in return, The Sunday Times reports. He has reportedly expressed a preference that the younger generation of royals, such as Prince Charles’ sons William and Harry, meet him instead".

This Trumpian indifference to global warming prepares us for a putative US unwillingness to reduce carbon emissions at future climate negotiations. But while the incoming US administration is likely to ignore the problem, the problem itself continues to grow News of the past two months shows the largest East Antarctic glacier melting from below as above-freezing ocean water eats away at it (the glacier is larger than California and if completely melted, could add 11.5 feet to global sea levels). At the other end of the earth’s axis, the North Pole went into the winter solstice, the darkest, coldest day of the year, with temperatures about 50° Fahrenheit above normal, while Greenland’s ice sheet was disappearing into the ocean, jeopardizing the Gulfstream and increasing future sea level rises. Furthermore, while CO2 emissions have stabilized, methane additions to greenhouse gases have jumped alarmingly in the past two years. Not surprising news, when we read that 2016 was the warmest year ever. [http://]

Climate refugees? Expected sea level rise, according to a former military advisor to the head of the Bangladesh government, is likely to send tens of millions of Bangladeshi climate refugees looking for safety in other countries, an expectation supported by military analysts in the US according to a Guardian article of December 1:

Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project, said: ‘Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.’

“‘Climate change impacts are also acting as an accelerant of instability in parts of the world on Europe’s doorstep, including the Middle East and Africa,” Cheney said. “There are direct links to climate change in the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, and the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa.’

In the months since Trump’s election, other countries (as well as many people in the US itself) have been responding more rationally to the worsening climate prospects. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported on December 15 that “Developing countries have made unprecedented pledges to consume more clean energy … even as they are leading the way today with record new wind and solar project completions”

Bloomberg cites a report in Climatescope (an online periodical supported by the UK and US governments, that indexes clean energy country competitiveness), where we can find some of the details:
The center of the clean energy universe has now shifted decisively from “north” to “south”. Compared to wealthier Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the Climatescope nations in 2015 cumulatively attracted more investment ($154.1bn vs. $153.7bn) and saw far more clean energy capacity build (69.8GW vs. 59.2GW). China was a large part of this, but lesser developed nations also played a role. Year-on-year, investment growth and deployment growth rates were also far higher in Climatescope nations than in OECD countries.

The Economist of December 10 reports on the energy revolution sweeping Latin America:
"For almost seven months this year, Costa Rica ran purely on renewable power. Uruguay has come close to that, too. In 2014, the latest year for which comparable data exist, Latin America as a whole produced 53% of its electricity from renewable sources, compared with a world average of 22%, according to the International Energy Agency."

Climate Home reports that India’s plans for new power generation between 2017 and 2027 show for the first five year period the completion of new coal power plants presently under construction, but no subsequent increase in coal capacity. In the same ten year period, India plans to double its clean energy capacity by adding 100GW of solar and wind.

The Dutch government, long a laggard in responding to the ever grimmer climate news, has finally made plans for rapid expansion of offshore wind parks near the coast of Zeeland. Apparently, the sharp decline in the costs of giant wind turbines and the expectation of Royal Dutch Shell, the country’s dominant energy producer, that investors may soon be deserting carbon for renewables have moved the Hague – no doubt in consultation with Shell -- to uncommonly rapid action.

In the US West Coast, which voted strongly against Trump, popular opposition to a proposed major coal port terminal in West Oakland led to its cancellation, one of six such victories for the anti-coal movement in the past decade (Portland Oregon and Seattle Washington have also refused bids for coal port facilities). California, which has its own emissions trading system, has made clear that it will continue it regardless of Trump’s policies, and the large Democratic majority in the California Senate and Assembly will insure continuation of its current program beyond 2020.

The significance of the California climate legislation is underlined in a fine article from Climate Central:

California is headed in a very different direction than the rest of the country,” said Gabriel Metcalf, president of San Francisco-based think tank SPUR. “The importance of California’s climate strategy is not just that it’s a big state with a big population. It’s also that it will be something that the rest of the country is paying attention to.

"Although it’s just a few years old, California operates the world’s second biggest cap-and-trade program (the European Union’s is bigger). Permits that are needed to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases are called allowances. They’re purchased by Californian power plants, oil refineries and factories and traded by financial speculators, raising hundreds of millions of dollars yearly for green projects while capping pollution.

"Similar cap-and-trade programs are operated by China, South Korea, New Zealand, a coalition of East Coast states and elsewhere. Instead of operating cap-and-trade programs, British Columbia and some other governments impose taxes on greenhouse gas pollutio

North of the US border, contradicting Trudeau’s longstanding support for the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada too is prepared to defy Trump’s oncoming climate skeptic administration with its own strong program to limit carbon emissions: Canada will have a climbing price for carbon that starts at C$10/ton and increases incrementally to C$50/ton in 2022. According to a Reuters dispatch of December 8,

Environmental groups say the carbon price and other federal measures announced this year, such as a clean fuel standard and a plan to combat methane emissions, mean Canada might attain its Paris goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

"’If the United States is reading between the lines, this is Canada trying to get more market share of the clean tech sector globally,’ said Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute.

Within the US, anti-fossil activism has also continued. In wintry North Dakota, Sioux indian tribes, gathering in their thousands in camps around the river site of a proposed oil pipeline near an ancestral burial place, used civil disobedience to halt construction. Finally getting the necessary support from the Obama administration, they forced the US army, whose permission was required for the pipeline, to a renewed environmental assessment, followed by a stop to further construction. (See our news postings of December 3, 5, and 6. Four days after taking office, however, in an instruction to the army to ”consider” withdrawing its environmental review and to approve the Dakota pipeline “in an expedited manner”, Trump revived both the Dakota and the TransCanada Keystone XL projects. The protesters have vowed to maintain their struggle, buoyed by the millions who turned out for the Women’s March against Trump’s program on the day after his inauguration.

In Oregon, a federal judge admitted the viability of a suit by 21 young people (aged 9 to 20) against the inadequacy of the climate protection given the citizenry by the federal government. The suit will proceed to trial in 2017.

Given that Trump could not formally take over the presidency until his inauguration on January 20, Obama tried to protect some, as least, of his achievement in climate protection. On December 20, for example, he used a legal power from 1953 to issue a ban on drilling in U.S. Arctic waters that cannot be easily repealed by his successor. Two days afterward, however, Trump’s team unveiled a part of their plan to undo Obama’s environmental protection. According to the Washington Post of December 22,
It seems increasingly likely that the Trump administration would either alter, or attempt to stop using entirely, an Obama-era metric known as the “social cost of carbon” in its federal rule-making processes. And that could have have major effects on the way environmental policies are written (or unwritten) in the coming years.”

The WP suggests that this was likely to create a battle royal between Trump’s climate skeptics and the large community of scientists and economists who established the basis for computing that social cost of carbon, a battle which could well end up in the courts.

The establishment of Trumpian know-nothingism at the White House, in the face of the surging climate catastrophe outlined above, underlines the urgent need for new ideas to combat it. In particular, the climate movement needs to analyze better the sources of that catastrophe in global mentalities. For the climate crisis is inseparable from the political and economic ideologies sustaining the quest for unceasing growth of production and consumption – a quest that for two centuries has been leading humankind to ecocide and species suicide.

The accession to power of Donald Trump casts a shadow over the future, but it does not doom the human species to inevitable catastrophe. There are reasons to avoid bleak pessimism.. The declining cost of renewable energy compared to fossil fuels, together with the massive global increase in climate awareness and protest over the past decade, give hope that not even the far right ideologues behind Trump can halt the world-wide movement for a sustainable future. But a sustainable planet is hardly compatible with the neoliberal corporate order that for decades has ruled the world. An environmental critique of the ideas underlying today’s consumer capitalism is indispensable.

In a sequel to this letter, I will discuss an important stimulus to such rethinking: The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh.

Warm regards from Amsterdam,
Arthur Mitzman, Coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change

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